The Texas Board of Education gave preliminary approval Thursday to dropping Algebra II as a requirement for high school graduation, over the objections of critics who say the state is watering down its academic standards.
Eliminating the Algebra II mandate for most students was part of a major overhaul of graduation, standardized testing and curriculum requirements unanimously approved by the Texas Legislature in May. The shake-up was meant to give students the flexibility to focus on career and vocational training -- not just college prep courses.
Much of the debate over the changes has focused on the Algebra II requirement. Many academic experts and school administrators said it's a key prerequisite for success both in college and beyond. But some trade groups argued that plenty of high-paying jobs are available without a college degree or high-level math.
The Board of Education, which is charged with implementing the overhaul for the start of the 2014-2015 school year, considered keeping the Algebra II requirement despite the objections of lawmakers who approved the overhaul. In the end, though, the board didn't defy the Legislature.
Thursday's was the first of several votes the board will take on the issue. Members usually don't change their minds -- but have been known to pull some surprises, especially on hot-button issues. Another vote is scheduled for Friday, followed by two more during its January meeting.
Texas is also stepping back from the strenuous accountability policies it has long been a national leader in championing, amid fears that youngsters are being forced to take too many high-stakes tests and that too many might drop out because of higher expectations. The new law also cuts the number of standardized tests students must pass to graduate from a nation-high 15 to five, but the board can't change that.
The overhaul comes even though the federal No Child Left Behind law was born in Texas, and billionaire Ross Perot first rallied big business to support tougher standardized testing and high school graduation standards here nearly three decades ago.
Texas' current curriculum standards already let students earning a diploma on the minimum academic plan graduate without taking Algebra II -- and about 20 percent of the state's youngsters do. But critics fear the changes will allow more to avoid the class.
The vote means Algebra II would be required of students who want "distinguished" degrees that allow them to qualify for automatic admission to any state public university in Texas. It will also be required of students who choose diploma plans that focus on STEM courses -- science, technology, engineering and math.
But the board removed a proposed Algebra II requirement for students who choose all other diploma paths: arts and humanities, business and industry, multidisciplinary studies and public service. Students can also earn "foundation" degrees that don't include higher math or science requirements and don't focus on a particular discipline.
Earlier in the week, when it looked like the board might include Algebra II as a requirement for most diploma plans, the two powerful sponsors of the law -- state Sen. Dan Patrick and Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock -- made an unplanned appearance before the board to argue against such a move.
Board member Marty Rowley, an Amarillo Republican who introduced the proposal to require Algebra II for STEM diplomas, said leaving the course out of all but that diploma path was what the Legislature intended with the original law.
"I feel like we serve the interests of those who have given us this charge in the first place," Rowley said, "as well as the students and the educators and the parents we represent by taking that requirement out."
For now, 17 states, including Texas, require Algebra II -- or at least start high school students in a default course plan including it or more advanced math studies, according to a 2012 report compiled by Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to strengthening academic standards nationwide.