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State board to consider looser graduation requirements

The argument over looser high school graduation requirements in Texas shifts this week from the Capitol to the State Board of Education.

At the heart of that dispute will be whether students will have to take advanced algebra.

Last spring, Texas lawmakers voted unanimously for legislation that retooled high school graduation requirements to give students, particularly those not headed to college, more flexibility to choose their courses.

But legislators left many of the key decisions about implementing House Bill 5 to the State Board of Education, which will take a first vote on the issue this week. Its meetings begin today and run until Friday. A final vote is expected in January.

All sides are gearing up again for a contentious debate over which courses students must take to graduate.

“We took the hill in the legislative session. Now, we have to hold the ground,” said Mike Meroney, a spokesman for Jobs for Texas Coalition, which includes 22 trade associations such as the Texas Chemical Council and the Texas Association of Manufacturers.

The coalition pushed for legislators to scuttle the prescriptive “4x4” plan — four credits each of math, science, English and social studies — and create several specialized pathways to graduation called endorsements. A bevy of education groups also got behind the more flexible approach.

But other business leaders — including those from the Texas Association of Business and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce — say the departure from the 4x4 plan will jeopardize progress the state has made in preparing students for college or a career after high school.

They want the State Board of Education to include Algebra 2 as well as chemistry and physics in each of the new endorsements, meaning that almost all of the 4x4 approach would remain intact.

A more rigorous load

At a news conference last week organized by the Chamber of Commerce, representatives from civil-rights groups, such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, echoed the call for all students to take a rigorous course load.

Three top state officials — the commissioners of education and of higher education and the Workforce Commission chairman — have teamed up to offer a similar message about the need for high-level courses to prepare students for college or a job.

“There is a consensus among all the commissioners that the one thing we’re all committed to is rigor. We need to make sure we maintain rigor, and in some cases we have to increase rigor” in public schools,” Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes said Nov. 12 after a Chamber of Commerce event in north Austin.

Paredes was joined onstage at the event by Education Commissioner Michael Williams and Workforce Commission Chairman Andres Alcantar.

No other course has created as much consternation among policymakers as Algebra 2.

Those on one side see it as essential to preparing students for college or a career after high school, and they point to studies showing that students who take Algebra 2 are more likely to finish college. The other side says it keeps many students from taking other courses they would find relevant to their future.

Tom Loveless, an education researcher at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said proponents of universal Algebra 2 believe that the course is the key to college readiness. But as more students have taken Algebra 2, the course has proved to be an unreliable indicator, he said.

“If taking Algebra 2 was the solution to solving our mathematics achievement problem then our problem should be solved, because only 25 percent don’t take it,” said Loveless, a former Harvard University professor.

Academic debate

Beginning next school year, all incoming ninth-graders must choose from among five endorsements, such as arts and humanities or business and industry. They may change the endorsement anytime or drop it after 10th grade and still be eligible to graduate.

It falls to the State Board of Education to determine the required courses for each endorsement. The first draft of the rules includes Algebra 2 in each endorsement, though the board could change that.

It’s not clear which direction the board will go.

Lawmakers wrestled with the Algebra 2 question throughout the debate and, in the end, opted not to mandate the course. It would be a mistake for the State Board of Education to ignore the Legislature’s decision, said board member Tom Maynard, R-Florence.

The Legislature has “already had that debate, so for us to do that would be absolutely contrary to the legislative intent of HB5,” Maynard said.

Others on the board argue that nothing in the legislation prohibits an Algebra 2 requirement in all the endorsements.

“It’s incumbent upon the board to put on their big boy pants and do the right thing, which is making sure high school is but a launching point for different career tracks, not the end of a career track,” said board member David Bradley, R-Beaumont.

Board Chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, cautioned against getting too hung up on Algebra 2. Her objective is to ensure that students have three years of math courses that require critical thinking, and she says that can be accomplished by offering more hands-on applied courses as an alternative to Algebra 2.