William McKenzie: Legislators should listen to minority parents and leaders

William McKenzie, wmckenzie@dallasnews.com, Published: 29 April 2013 10:19 PM

A woman called from Houston recently to report she was concerned about the Legislature dialing back the state’s expectations for students. She particularly was worried that if the state doesn’t test kids sufficiently, it will be hard to know if they’re learning at the right level. During our talk, she identified herself as a minority parent.

As she spoke, I thought of the warnings that the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Council of La Raza and Education Trust have been sending Austin. The groups represent poor and minority students, and they’re upset that lowering academic standards could limit minority students’ potential.

Their views, along with those of the Houston mother, present a striking contrast to those coming from superintendents and largely white suburban parents. Recently, I interviewed David Anthony, former superintendent of the suburban Cypress-Fairbanks school district, for this newspaper’s Education Blog. He was fine with Texas not testing high school students beyond Algebra I. If the Legislature goes that route, which HB 5 proposes, Texas essentially would no longer assess students in math beyond ninth grade.

I’ve also fielded calls and emails from suburban parents. Many suggest, in strong terms, that Texas should substantially reduce the number of end-of-course tests high school students must pass.

Some, like parents associated with Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, would no longer have students in grades three through eight take the state’s yearly achievement exam. They would use the STAAR test sporadically during those years, even though federal law requires yearly exams in those grades. (The House heard legislation Monday that reflects TAMSA’s recommendations.)
The differences in these approaches to academic expectations are worth remembering as the Legislature enters its last month. Still ahead is the Senate’s debate over HB 5, the measure backed by superintendents and suburban parents that sparked the call from the minority mom.

HB 5 would reduce the end-of-course exams high school students must take from 15 to five. The bill also would let them graduate with fewer challenging courses, especially in math and science.
The House passed the bill overwhelmingly. The Senate Education Committee has approved its version. Next up is the full Senate’s debate.

As that happens, let’s be clear: There are plenty of places to compromise.
For starters, drop the current requirement that end-of-course exams count for up to 15 percent of a high school student’s grade. Many agree that’s a smart move.

Second, go with seven end-of-course tests for high school students instead of 15 or five. Make them count for Algebra I and II, English II and III, geometry and biology and U.S. history.
Third, adopt state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte’s alternative to HB 5’s weaker degree options for high school students. The Latina legislator and groups such as La Raza worry that minority students will get tracked onto an easy plan that will not prepare them for college or a good job.

The San Antonio Democrat would have Texas’ central degree plan become a variation of today’s 4X4 plan, which HB 5 largely would retreat from. The 4X4 route requires high school students to have four years of math, science, English and social studies.

Van de Putte believes students should have four years of math, science and English, along with three years of social studies. Students also could have flexibility in their math and science courses, including taking math courses aimed at technical jobs.

Too much math flexibility could be risky, but she’s offering a reasonable compromise.
Unfortunately, the Senate’s education committee didn’t accept it. Van de Putte told me later that she would keep trying to sell her idea to Senate colleagues, including as a floor amendment.

That’s encouraging. Her proposal would resemble the current recommended degree plan that students use to prepare for college or the workforce. (HB 5 would replace the recommended plan with a less-rigorous foundational plan.)

The senator is reflecting the concerns of minority parents and leaders. They fear their children will be left behind — again. In a state whose public school students are overwhelmingly Latino and black, we ought to listen to their voices. Curbing expectations will limit the future of young Texans.

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