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Texas Board To Weigh 6th-Grade 'Tracking' Plan

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A controversial curriculum plan that would separate students into three academic tracks as early as the 7th grade was to be presented in preliminary draft form to the Texas Board of Education at its September meeting late last week.

The plan, if implemented, would require students to choose between primarily vocational or college-preparatory programs during their 6th-grade year, but officials stressed that students would not be "locked into" their decisions and would have the right to switch if they wanted to.

One unusual feature of the plan is that it would allow students in the most rigorous academic track to take up to six consecutive years of science or mathematics, beginning in the 7th grade, said Thomas Slater, science specialist for the state's education department. It also would lead to a severe decrease in extracurricular activities during school hours.

Graduation Requirements

The plan would boost graduation requirements for all students from the current 18 credits to at least 21, and to 24 for those in the most rigorous academic program. The only state known to have set a more demanding academic standard is Florida, which last year started offering an "academic scholar" program requiring 26 credits for graduation.

"It's going to knock the very hell out of the kids," Mr. Slater said. "They'll be the leaders of the next generation."

The preliminary plan proposes three programs: vocational, general studies, and academic. Vocational students would be required to take two years of mathematics, two of science, no courses in foreign languages, and five in vocational education for graduation.

Students in the academic program would be required to take three years of mathematics, three of science, three of foreign languages, one in any of these three subjects; one in computer science; and one in fine arts, according to Victoria Bergin, associate commissioner.

Both vocational and academic students would take four years in English, three in social studies, and two in health and physical education, and would choose three electives.

The general-studies program would be like the vocational program, except that its students would substitute electives for vocational courses, officials said.

Texas education officials have been reviewing and revising their curriculum requirements for the past two years under a mandate from the state legislature, and several interim reports have recommended stiffening academic standards and dividing students into different academic programs.

Will Davis, a member of the state board, said that "100 percent of the teachers and administrators" questioned by the board during public hearings around the state confirmed that "7th and 8th grade is the appropriate place for these choices to be made." He said there would be plenty of "mobility" among the three programs for students who change their minds, and for that reason the plan would in no way discriminate against any group of students.

"You don't lock them in, but you start them," Mr. Davis continued. "If you don't give them something challenging, you lose them at the 10th grade." The board will not take action on the plan at the September meeting, he added.

'Discriminatory Effect'

However, Norma Cantu, a counsel with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (maldef) said she believes the plan could have ''a discriminatory effect against Hispanic students."

Ms. Cantu said she had not seen the details of the preliminary plan, but noted that she doubted minority students would in fact be able to switch tracks easily. "There are too many poor schools that will not have the resources to help students make the change," she said. "The forces will be against it."

Ms. Cantu also said she thinks the plan marks the first step toward a state system where "only the most elite" will get a high-quality education. Parent groups have objected to the plan, arguing that 6th grade is far too soon for children--or their teachers and parents--to make decisions about their future.

Virgina is a state with a new policy somewhat similar to the Texas proposal. It has a two-track plan that requires 20 credits for graduation from its "standard" program, and 22 credits for its "advanced-studies" program. According to a spokesman for the state education department, students in the standard program take one less course in mathematics or in science; they have no foreign-language requirement (advanced students have three); and they may take two more electives. (See Education Week, June 8, 1983.)

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