New high school graduation requirements began taking shape in Texas on Thursday, as the Board of Education approved a curriculum that frees many students from having to take algebra II but provides alternative math courses designed to cover much of the same material.
The move came despite many of the board's 15 members bristling at having to scrap the state's algebra II mandate, which was a key -- and hotly debated -- component of a sweeping education law overwhelmingly approved by the Legislature in May.
That legislation, which is poised to transform classrooms for the state's 5 million-plus public school students, also cut the number of standardized tests from 15 to five that high school students must pass. The overhaul was designed to give students more flexibility to focus on career and vocational training that can prepare them for high-paying jobs that don't necessarily require a college degree.
School districts can still require algebra II, it's just no longer mandated by the state.
But the board voted 13-2 on Thursday to create two high-level math courses that could be alternatives to algebra II: statistics and algebraic reasoning. Both will be developed by local schools under the guidance of the Texas Education Agency, and are designed to be as tough as algebra II.
Board members still must cast a final vote Friday to formally implement the new graduation standards, which are set to take effect next fall. But that should be largely ceremonial since the major sticking points over dialing-back the algebra II mandate have now been resolved.
Creating the new courses was necessary because, in November, the board complied with the Legislature and voted to drop the algebra II graduation requirement for most students. Only those pursuing honors diplomas or focusing on coursework in math and science will still have to pass the course.
But in many school districts, especially smaller ones, students would have ended up taking algebra II anyway because they are still required to take math as part of their normal coursework and there aren't many alternative classes offered. Now, they will have more options.
"I think we've reached a compromise that everyone can be comfortable with," said Sue Melton-Malone, R-Waco.
Algebra II has been a hot-button issue for months -- especially since Texas was the first state to require the course for most students in 2006. Since then, 16 other states and the District of Columbia have imposed similar algebra II mandates.
Board of Education member Lawrence Allen, a Democrat from Fresno, estimated that 60 or 70 percent of Texas students would still take algebra II under the new curriculum. He said students who don't take the class will now have a chance to master many of the same mathematical and problem-solving concepts, however.
But fellow Democrat Ruben Cortez of Brownsville described the algebraic reasoning course as "watered-down algebra II."
Martha Dominguez, a Democrat from El Paso, said that without proper guidance, many students, particularly minorities, may not challenge themselves and therefore wouldn't be properly prepared for college or life beyond it when they would have otherwise succeeded.
"We're not doing what's in the best interest of our students," Dominguez said.
Republican board member David Bradley, of Beaumont, noted that the board's hands were tied because the Legislature had already passed the curriculum shakeup: "We've got a piece of legislation that we've got to put some lipstick on," he said.
"Algebra II's becoming the whipping boy," Bradley said. "I walk out there in the community and I don't see any kids walking around brain dead and maimed and mangled because they had to take algebra II."