More control for school districts with Texas’ new graduation requirements

BY KATE ALEXANDER | Friday, Jan. 31, 2014, 8:02PM

Texas began tightening its grip on school districts more than 30 years ago in an effort to raise the overall quality of public education and stop local “no-pass, no-play” abuses.

State leaders instituted mandatory tests for graduation, set common standards and, in 2006, established a set of graduation requirements called the “4×4”: four years each of math, science, English and social studies. The rigid 4×4 standard created uniformity, but it left schools and students little wiggle room to try anything different, educators say.

“The pendulum swung too far,” said HD Chambers, superintendent of the Alief school district near Houston. “The pendulum had swung to the point where local districts had absolutely no say in a student’s education.”

Local school districts will now have a bigger say — and a bigger obligation. The State Board of Education gave final approval Friday to new graduation requirements that give students more flexibility to choose some of their courses.

Returning some control to local districts was a key component of House Bill 5, the 2013 legislation that overhauled testing and graduation requirements. That devolution of state power was at the center of the hubbub over which students should be required to take Algebra 2.

Without a state mandate, critics maintain, school districts won’t push students to take high-level math, leaving them ill-prepared for college or good jobs after high school.

State board member Martha Dominguez, D-El Paso, registered the sole “nay” during the board’s vote Friday out of concern that low-income and minority students would be particularly harmed by the looser requirements for Algebra 2.

Under the new rules, 4×4 has been replaced by multiple specialized paths to graduation called endorsements: Arts and Humanities; Business and Industry; Science, Technology, Engineering and Math; Public Services; and Multidisciplinary.

The aim is to give students the flexibility to find a course of study that is more relevant to their plans beyond high school rather than being “forced and crammed into an Algebra 2 course they didn’t want to be in,” said Chambers, who led the charge to change the graduation requirements.

Algebra 2 is required only of those students pursuing the science and math endorsement as well as those who are taking the “distinguished” plan, which has additional requirements beyond the endorsements. Students must graduate on the distinguished plan to qualify for automatic admission to Texas universities based on class rank.

Experts expect most students still will take Algebra 2.

Local districts can set graduation standards higher than the state’s 26-credit plans, including mandating that all their students take Algebra 2. The Georgetown school district, for example, has established a 28-credit graduation plan that includes the distinguished requirements plus two additional electives.

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, expects most districts to aim low, and low-income students will suffer for it, he said. About 60 percent of children in Texas public schools are economically disadvantaged.

“The superintendents of Texas … simply do not want to be heldresponsible for educating children born in poverty,” said Hammond, who has long advocated for the state to assert more control over education.

State officials know they are taking a bit of a risk by relinquishing some control.

“By our vote today, we’re moving another level of responsibility to our local school districts. We’re asking them that they don’t take the path of least resistance,” said board member Marty Rowley, R-Amarillo.

Times have changed, Chambers said. Educators are keenly aware of their responsibility to help all children succeed and there are a lot more eyes on public schools than in bygone days, including a sophisticated state monitoring and accountability system.

“It won’t be like it was 30 years ago when you could dump kids anywhere you want and nobody was paying attention,” Chambers said. “Part of this is a leap of faith that local districts and local boards are going to make the right decisions.”

People are waiting in the wings for the local officials to falter with their newfound authority, said Bobby Rigues, an Aledo school board member who has been giving presentations to some of the 7,000 elected school board members around the state about House Bill 5.

And those critics will pounce if school leaders set low expectations.

“The only way we can avoid having (that authority) taken away is exceeding the minimum requirements,” Rigues said.

In Central Texas, many school districts are going well beyond the state minimum.

The state has mandated that all students start out at least on a 26-credit graduation plan that includes the 22-credit foundation plus additional courses in an endorsement area. After 10th grade, they may revert to the foundation plan if a parent consents to the move.

Several local districts plan to start all students on the 26-credit distinguished plan, which also requires Algebra 2 and is similar to the 4×4.

Austin, Hays, Pflugerville, Eanes, Hutto and Lake Travis are among the area districts that plan to establish the distinguished plan as the default for next year’s ninth-graders.

The Leander school district is going a step further. Administrators are considering adding a fourth, more rigorous graduation plan option that is tailored to the district.

The so-called Distinguished Level of Achievement + Honors requires three years of foreign language in addition to the four credits in English, science, social studies and math. The math credits must include Algebra 2 and the fourth math course must include Algebra 2 as a minimum prerequisite.

“With 70 percent of our students going on to college after they leave Leander ISD, the high school principals … really wanted to ensure we weren’t steering students in a wrong way,” said Leander Superintendent Bret Champion. “We know colleges are still looking for the 4×4. That’s why we were starting with that but allow for the spirit of the law to continue.”

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