March 15, 2014

Academic shift is crucial for Texas

High school students can pick less rigorous programs, but the state needs college grads.

The Texas Legislature, under pressure to relax standardized testing in public schools, last year threw in the towel for its decades-long fight to steadily increase academic standards.

Students entering high school next fall can choose from a new array of graduation plans tailored to their individual interests, including pathways that are less rigorous than the four years of math, English, science and social studies prescribed by lawmakers in 2007.

The changes aimed to give students who don’t plan to go to college more time in high school for elective courses and vocational instruction.

But the problems of the new approach also are well known.

At age 14 or 15, students going into ninth grade are not always best suited to be determining their long-term future.

Schools need more qualified counselors to help them make key decisions or at least get started on charting their high school graduation path.

There has never been a more important time for parents to be involved in those decisions.

The stakes are high, not just for individual students but for the state as a whole.

An expert at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas warned this past week that educational attainment in the Lone Star State isn’t keeping up with the demands of its growing economy.

“According to the Center on Education and the Workforce, two out of every three jobs will require some form of higher education within the next five years,” said a blog post from Patrick Kobler, program coordinator for The Alliance to Reform Education Leadership at the George W. Bush Institute.

“If Texas cannot produce a higher percentage of its population able to fill this demand, businesses, including the state’s 52 Fortune 500 companies, may begin to look elsewhere for future employees. Preparing more students to succeed in, and ultimately complete, higher education can help ensure businesses continue relocating to — and not out of — Texas.”

The issues are perhaps best illustrated by math requirements set by the Legislature in last year’s education reform measure, House Bill 5, and the high school graduation program adopted by the State Board of Education in January.

Much of the discussion centered on one course: Algebra II.

The dilemma is straightforward: Preparation for college means taking Algebra II; students who don’t necessarily have college plans might opt out. A new course that includes “algebraic reasoning” is being developed for rollout in 2015.

But there’s real danger that disinterest in math — or simply not being exposed to math in a way that sparks that interest — could channel a kid away and make redirection back toward a college degree much more difficult.

Kobler’s blog post said Texas has the 14th largest economy in the world but only 32 percent of its residents ages 25-34 have an associate degree or higher.

“That’s a full 10 percentage points behind the national average,” he wrote.

He noted an analysis from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board showing that first-time college students who fall behind in high school math also fail to complete college math courses, whereas those who enter college unprepared in reading and writing were better able to catch up.

Lack of preparation for higher education is especially detrimental for minority students, who have lower college graduation rates to begin with.

Kobler’s prescribed solution is just the opposite of what the Legislature did last year.

“To balance its demand-side heavy, supply-side weak employment structure,” he wrote, “Texas can increase middle and high school rigor, to increase completion rates for higher education programs that prepare students for family-sustainable careers. And it would be wise to do so soon.”

Texas, it seems, is leaving that weighty decision in the hands of 14- and 15-year-olds.

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