College & Workforce Readiness

Texas Trying to Scale Back Graduation Mandates

By Erik W. Robelen — April 02, 2013 7 min read
Mary Anne Whiteker, a local schools superintendent, visits the Texas House as lawmakers work on a measure to rewrite state graduation mandates.

Leading Texas lawmakers are working to rewrite the state’s high school graduation requirements with plans to change the default course of study and lower from 15 to five the number of end-of-course exams most students must pass to earn a diploma.

Proponents call the legislative effort a reasonable approach to reduce testing and give students more flexibility in selecting high school courses. But critics, including some Texas business leaders and national advocacy groups, argue that it represents a step backward for a state they see as being in the vanguard nationally in setting policies to better prepare young people, especially low-income and minority students, for college and careers.

Some observers say the plans would take Texas in the opposite direction of states that have worked to ratchet up their graduation requirements and embrace end-of-course exams.

The legislation, approved last week by the Texas House of Representatives in a landslide vote, would replace the state’s “recommended” high school pathway—popularly known as “4x4"—under which students must successfully complete four years of coursework in English, mathematics, science, and social studies.

Instead, the measure would create a new “foundation” diploma, with fewer specific course requirements. Students would able to earn specified “endorsements” for such areas as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and business/industry if they wished.

Students also would have to pass far fewer end-of-course exams. Among those no longer required would be Algebra 2, chemistry, physics, and English 3.

Similar legislation, separated into two bills, was approved recently by the Senate education committee. The full Senate had been slated to take those measures up last week, but that action was postponed.

Meeting Student Needs

Sixteen business groups and large companies, including the Texas Association of Business, the Austin Chamber of Commerce, ExxonMobil, and Texas Instruments, sharply criticized the measures in a letter to state lawmakers last month.

“We have been a national leader in promoting higher expectations for all students, and our young people have reaped big rewards,” they wrote. “Now is not the time to reverse progress when Texas needs a more skilled workforce to meet the demands of the 21st-century economy.”

But Catherine P. Clark, the government-relations director for the Texas Association of School Boards, called the changes a common-sense approach to rein in state requirements that have gone too far.

“What we have done to change public education in the last four or five years has gone overboard,” she said, “requiring students to take 15 end-of-course tests that count for graduation. That is just high-stakes testing gone wild.”

Ms. Clark said the changes to the high-school-diploma pathway would make it “more flexible for students to graduate and meet their own personal needs.” She said that with so many students trying to take four years of courses in math, science, social studies, and English, it’s hard to find time for other courses that fit better with their interests and career plans.

“We’re not softening expectations,” Ms. Clark said, “we’re trying to meet the needs of students.”

More than two-thirds of recent Texas graduates, based on state data for the class of 2011, followed the state’s “recommended” 4x4 program. Starting with freshmen in 2007-08, that became the default graduation pathway.

A student who wished to opt out and pursue a “minimum” program with lesser course requirements had to have the written consent of a parent and a school counselor. About 18 percent of students opted for the minimum program in the class of 2011. About 13 percent of pursued the “distinguished” program, which included all the 4x4 requirements plus other ones.

The House bill would replace the 4x4 program, as well as the minimum and distinguished programs, with a “foundation” high school program that required students to complete four credits in English, three in math, three in social studies, and three in science, including biology, as well as integrated physics/chemistry and an “advanced” science course. Students would have to pass end-of-course exams to graduate only for English 1 and 2, Algebra 1, biology, and U.S. history.

In addition, students could earn “endorsements” by completing additional credits in specific areas.

The lead sponsor is Republican Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, the chairman of the House education committee. The Senate legislation is spearheaded by Sen. Dan Patrick, also a Republican and the chairman of the Senate education panel.

‘The Bad Old Days’

The plans have split the business community in Texas, one of just four states that did not adopt the Common Core State Standards. A coalition of 22 trade groups, for example, including the Texas Association of Builders and the Texas Chemical Council, backs the House and Senate bills.

Graduation requirements have caused “a growing skills gap for Texas employers,” they wrote House members last week, saying the changes would allow schools to “develop relevant, up-to-date programs that reflect” workforce needs.

But the National Council of La Raza and the Education Trust, two Washington-based organizations that advocate in behalf of poor and minority students, in a letter last month to Texas lawmakers call the legislation a “retreat from progress Texas has made” in recent years. “The proposed changes would take Texas back to the bad old days of pervasive tracking, ignoring the clear evidence that all students, regardless of the path they choose after high school, need the same rigorous course content to succeed,” the groups write.

A strength of the current system, say its advocates, is that students, with parental support, must opt out of the more rigorous pathway to graduation, rather than opt in, which they say has led far more students to follow the 4x4 program than would have otherwise.

“You’ve got to grab mom and say, ‘I am willingly putting myself onto the minimum program,’ ” said Drew Cheberle, a vice president of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. The House and Senate bills “put students onto the lowest plan and have them opt in [to more advanced work].”

But Mary Ann Whiteker, the superintendent of the 2,700-student Lufkin district in east Texas, criticized the 4x4 program as a “one-size-fits-all” approach to education.

“We’re just saying, let’s have more flexibility in identifying these rigorous courses that are more relevant, so students are engaged and excited about learning and see the relevance in why they have to learn this,” she said.

As for the 15 end-of-course exams, Ms. Whiteker said: “It’s overwhelming. It truly is. Right now, under our current system, if you look at the days identified for testing and retesting, we are looking at 45 days of testing in the state of Texas, and our students only go 180 days. It’s totally absurd.”

State Commissioner of Education Michael L. Williams agrees that having 15 required end-of-course exams is too much, said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the education agency, but has argued that cutting them back to five goes too far.

“The commissioner spoke out in favor of potentially eight tests, two per subject, for the four core subjects,” she said.

Implementation of the end-of-course tests began last year.

High Stakes

Allissa R. Peltzman, a vice president of Achieve, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said it was striking that Texas was “reversing course” on end-of-course exams, given that so many other states have introduced them. By her organization’s latest count, 29 states use such exams, though she said requiring 15 is more than most and perhaps all other states do.

But rather than abandon most of those exams, perhaps the state might rethink the stakes attached to them, Ms. Peltzman suggested.

In Texas, students in the “recommended” program must pass all 15 exams, and each one also counts for 15 percent of the grade in a given course.

“The assessments don’t have to have high-stakes consequences to send meaningful signals,” Ms. Peltzman said, arguing they can still provide valuable information to students, educators, and the state.

Josh Havens, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Rick Perry, declined to comment on the House-approved bill. But he did say that while the governor “supports efforts to re-examine how we prepare and evaluate our students throughout their entire high school career, he will protect the academic rigor that prepares students for career and college.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2013 edition of Education Week as Texas Trying to Scale Back Graduation Requirements

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