As they prepare to enter high school next fall, 8th graders in public schools across Texas are being given a choice of three different academic plans to follow through graduation, two of which are distinctively tougher than the third.
Yet when those options were recently explained to a class at Tom Browne Middle School here, the easiest option, known as the “minimum” academic plan, was nowhere to be found.
Instead, all the students in the class were limited to checking one of two boxes, indicating which of two college-prep routes they would pursue: the “recommended” or the “distinguished achievement” pathway in high school.
That nudge toward a more demanding academic program is one district’s attempt to comply with a Texas law that makes a college-prep curriculum the default requirement for all high school students—not just the strongest performers.
As policymakers across the country seek ways to improve high schools, state leaders in Texas, as well as in Arkansas and Indiana, are pursuing that goal by demanding that the broadest possible pool of students take courses that will prepare them for college and the job market.
All freshmen who began high school in Texas last fall were required to pursue at least the recommended curriculum, under a law passed in 2001. The easier, minimum option is allowed only if a student and his or her parents specifically request that route.
Officials in the 39,000-student, mostly working-class Corpus Christi district say that even before the mandate took effect, they had long been encouraging high schoolers to take at least the recommended program. One way they convey that message is by having the district’s high school counselors, during regular orientation sessions at middle schools, downplay the minimum option.
The thinking is that students can choose the least rigorous plan later, but they should try a tougher one first, said counselor Martin Rupp, after finishing an orientation presentation at Tom Browne Middle School last month.
“We don’t advertise it,” Mr. Rupp said of the minimum option, “because we don’t want them to pick it.”
Selecting a Path
Students who choose Texas’ “recommended” plan are required to take four years of English, three years of science, two years of a foreign language, and, in what might pose the greatest challenge, three years of mathematics, including Algebra 2. The “distinguished” path sets an even higher mark, mandating three years of foreign language and requiring students to choose from a number of additional options, such as conducting a research project or achieving a specified score on college-prep or college-entrance exams.
The “minimum” plan, by contrast, requires neither Algebra 2 nor a foreign language, and demands only two years of science. Texas students receive a traditional graduation diploma regardless of the plan they follow, as long as they pass the state assessment.
In pitching the recommended route to 8th graders at Tom Browne, Mr. Rupp offered both encouragement and an unvarnished look at the challenges ahead.
Pointing out course titles on an overhead projector, the counselor reviewed the menu of regular and honors classes, jumping between scheduling and academic issues. Noting that many of the 8th graders are already taking a foreign language, he advised them not to skip a year or two of those classes, even though the recommended plan requires only two years of foreign-language study. He says putting those studies on hold could cause students to lose that foundation.
Another recommendation includes taking Advanced Placement courses and exams, because passing those tests could save their families money on college tuition, said Mr. Rupp, a counselor at Mary Carroll High School, which many of Browne Middle School’s students will attend.
He does not suggest that either the recommended or distinguished program is easy.
“Realize there’s a difference between ability and motivation,” Mr. Rupp tells the class. You have the ability to succeed, he assures them. “The question you have to ask is, will you? Do you have the self-motivation to actually do it?”
While Texas has sought to raise coursetaking requirements, the records of other states are more mixed, particularly in math and science. A 2002 report by the Council of Chief State School Officers found that at least 29 states and the District of Columbia required three or more years of high school math, while 23 states and the District mandated at least three years of science—with many states having raised those standards in both subjects over the previous four years.
A deep pool of research suggests that students’ chances of making it to college, and succeeding there, increase significantly if they take challenging high school courses. One organization that advocates higher academic standards, the Washington-based Achieve, says those classes should include four years of math (including Algebra 2) and four years of grade-level English. Matt Gandal, the executive vice president of Achieve, predicts that the number of states that will follow Texas, Arkansas, and Indiana in adopting a college-preparatory list of courses as the default curriculum will “increase dramatically” in the years ahead.
States are also likely to copy Texas’ policy of giving parents and students the right to “opt out” of the most demanding academic plans, Mr. Gandal said.
“It’s much more politically palatable, and educationally sound, to have a safety net in place,” he said. “It actively puts the onus on the parents and students. It says very clearly, ‘If you don’t do this, your opportunities will be limited.’ ”
Ready for College and Work
In making a college-prep curriculum the default standard for their state, Arkansas leaders also elected to give families the right to avoid the more difficult path. State officials agreed to promote that more demanding requirement, known as the “Smart Core,” which will become the default curriculum for the 2010 graduating class, after finding that student scores on state and college-entrance exams varied according to the rigor of the high school courses they had taken, said Charity Smith, the assistant director for accountability for the state education department.
“We felt it was our responsibility to the public,” Ms. Smith said. “For too long, we were giving kids options that limited them at the postsecondary level.”
Indiana lawmakers are considering a measure to make the state’s recommended, college-preparatory curriculum, known as the “Core 40,” a requirement for all students, beginning with the 2011 graduating class. Students could still opt out of the plan under that bill, which Gov. Mitch Daniels supports. The proposal would also tie students’ admission to state four-year universities to their completion of the plan, which is optional now.
In Texas, meanwhile, legislators made the recommended program the default curriculum with strong backing from the business community. Its leaders argued that the higher standard would not only produce more qualified workers but would also reduce the money postsecondary institutions were pouring into remedial courses for first-year students.
In today’s market, high-end technology jobs “all have one thing in common: They require a huge foundation in math and science,” said John Stevens, the executive director of the Texas Business and Education Coalition, which supports the higher graduation standard. “So many of the [workers] we’ve relied on have come from elsewhere. We’ve not home-grown those.”
But others worry that requiring students to take more core subjects will force schools to reduce other classes that appeal more to struggling students. “We’ve cut out enough courses for kids who are not college-bound,” said Donna Haschke, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association. “We still have concerns about the number of dropouts. … Elective courses are the ones that keep them in school.”
While the TSTA, an affiliate of the National Education Association, supports elevating academic standards, Ms. Haschke also fears that Texas’ tougher requirements will put more pressure on districts that are already scrambling to find well-qualified teachers. A 2003 report by the Council of Chief State School Officers found that only 52 percent of Texas secondary math teachers had majored in that subject and were fully certified to teach it. And only 51 percent of science teachers met those two standards.
In more advanced math courses like Algebra 2, teacher openings become especially difficult to fill, Mr. Stevens acknowledged.
Even before the default-curriculum requirements go into full effect in Texas, the number of students taking a more demanding set of courses appears to be rising substantially: From the 2000-01 to 2003-04 academic years, the percentage of students completing at least the recommended program rose from 39 percent to 64 percent, according to state records.
Statewide, the percentage of minority students taking that curriculum lags behind that of whites. In Corpus Christi, where nearly three-quarters of the student enrollment is Hispanic, 59 percent of African-Americans and 60 percent of Latinos took at least the recommended option in 2003-04, compared with 70 percent of whites, state records show.
Even as they applaud the state’s goals, some math teachers in the Corpus Christi district question the wisdom of requiring all students to take high-level courses. Jacinto Trevino, a math teacher at Mary Carroll High School, said he ends up devoting a significant portion of his Algebra 2 class to reviewing concepts from Algebra 1. If he didn’t, many students would grow too frustrated to carry on, he said.
Many of those teenagers would benefit from a third year of math at a slightly lower academic level, he argues. “Once they get in here, they close up,” Mr. Trevino said. “They give up on themselves.” For some students, he said, “we have to teach them at a lower level to get them up to speed.”
Those struggles in higher-level classes are especially great for students coping with instability at home, several teachers here noted. More than 40 percent of the district’s high school students come from economically disadvantaged homes.
“A lot of these kids, their concerns are safety, housing, and food,” said Rebecca Gill, who teaches Algebra 2 at Roy Miller High School. Many students, she added, have parents who did not finish high school.
Corinna Ortiz, a senior at Miller High, said encouragement from her family helped convince her to pursue the “distinguished” academic plan. The 17-year-old also figured she would need a demanding set of high school math courses to prepare her to study mechanical engineering in college, though she has since decided to begin with a college communications program. Many of her peers, she noted, did not receive such prodding.
“A lot of it has to do with parental involvement,” said Ms. Ortiz, who was recently accepted at the the University of Texas at Austin. For some students, she said, “their parents don’t do anything except push them to go to school.”