Texas House lawmakers on Tuesday approved major changes to the state's high school curriculum that would allow students to graduate without having to take Algebra II or other advanced math and science classes and would slash the number of standardized tests they'd have to pass from 15 to five.
The bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, a Killeen Republican who chairs the chamber's Public Education Committee, is designed to give more flexibility to students who want to focus on vocational training that would better prepare them for high-paying jobs that don't require a college degree. It passed 145-2, and now heads to the state Senate.
The measure would supplant a 2007 Texas law that created curriculum standards known as "4x4," which mandate that students take four years each of math, science, English and social studies. Instead, it would let them earn a "foundation" diploma without taking so many core courses, thus allowing more space for career-training electives.
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As the House slogged through 165 proposed amendments to the bill over nine hours, debate centered on the Algebra II exemption, which proponents contend is too difficult for some students.
"I just don't believe everybody needs Algebra II," Aycock said on the House floor. "I know there are people in this room who disagree with that, but I don't believe it should be the determining factor in a student's future."
Critics, including many higher education leaders, say the bill would essentially lower the bar for students by enabling them to graduate without really challenging themselves. They point to studies that show a correlation between being able to pass Algebra II and succeeding in college and beyond. Others say the legislation would erode college attendance gains minority and low-income students have made in part because of the current, demanding curriculum.
Under the bill, though, students could earn "distinguished" degrees by completing Algebra II and other upper-level math and science courses which would qualify them for automatic admission to any Texas state university -- just as all those who graduate in the top 10 percent of their classes now do. Those who don't earn distinguished degrees wouldn't qualify for automatic admission.
Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, introduced an unsuccessful amendment that would have made the distinguished degree curriculum the state's default, thus forcing students to opt out of that track instead of opting into it. He said it would ensure more students take college prep courses.
"Having higher expectations makes a difference," Strama said. Agreeing was Houston Democratic Rep. Sylvester Turner, who told the House, "If you set a low bar, a lot of kids are going to go for the low bar."
"I would rather say to kids, `I know you can do it, I know you can jump the high bar,"' he said. "And life is not easy. Kids need to learn that right now, in school."
Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, countered, saying that making high school too hard would increase the dropout rate. "Do you agree that we should not set a bar so high that many kids will not try?" he asked.
Many smaller modifications were approved, but Aycock opposed major changes, including one to create a special course on "adult responsibility" that would have taught students to resolve conflict in ways other than fighting.
"Many of our students are not prepared for adult life," said Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, a San Antonio Democrat who offered the amendment. She argued that teaching anger management could prevent youngsters' future arrests -- but the measure was defeated.
Tuesday was a dramatic departure from 2009, when efforts to make school curriculum as demanding as possible dominated the legislative session. That's when lawmakers voted to require that every student pass 15 standardized tests to graduate high school. Aycock said that today, "15 is too many."
His bill only requires students to pass exams in English reading and writing, Algebra I, biology and U.S. History.
Some don't want testing rolled back, including the powerful Texas Association of Business. The lobbying group opposes any move to ease curriculum standards since it claims current ones are already not demanding enough to prepare high school graduates for either college or the modern job market.
Aycock's legislation also calls for a school accountability rating system based on letter grades A through F, rather than the current scale that ranges from "Exemplary" to "Academically Unacceptable." The new system would judge schools on three factors: their financial well-being, interaction with the community and students' academic performance.
An especially passionate moment came when Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, offered a failed proposal that school districts only be rated based on the performance of their male, African-American students, so that schools will be forced to do a better job educating that group. He said black male students "are at the bottom. They are at the absolute bottom."
"And if we design something that moves them, everyone in this state will move. Every group of students will improve," Dutton said.