Texas’s graduation requirements fail to make the grade

April 7, 2013

WHEN TEXAS TOOK the nation’s lead a decade ago in putting new rigor into high school graduation requirements, some worried it would cause more students to drop out or increase the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers. The opposite has proved true: Graduation rates have increased, with the greatest growth occurring among low-income and minority students. Given such success, it’s bewildering that the state would roll back, as is now under serious consideration, these high standards.

Working their way through the Texas Legislature are bills that would rewrite high school graduation requirements to reduce the number of end-of-course exams required for a diploma and loosen the required courses for graduation. Under the state’s current recommended course load, high school students (barring those who opt out with written consent from a parent and school counselor) must complete four years of coursework in English, mathematics, science and social studies. Under the revised requirements, a new “foundation” diploma would allow students to take more electives with lightened course requirements. No longer would Algebra II or advanced science courses be required.

Supporters, including the state’s association of school boards, say state requirements have gone too far; the change will give students flexibility to take courses that better fit their interests and career plans. The state’s business community is split, with some of them (including the Texas Association of Business) siding with opponents who recognize the danger of retreating from high expectations. Students who take more rigorous courses learn more. Given increasing international competition, that’s critical for both those who go to college and those who don’t. A rigorous high school curriculum is the best preparation for college success and for providing the high-level knowledge and skills required in today’s jobs. Try getting a job as an auto technician or sheet-metal worker without proficiency in math or the ability to read and understand a technical manual.

If enacted, the measures promise to have a particularly pernicious effect on students from low-income families without college-educated parents. The National Council of La Raza and the Education Trust, advocates for poor and minority students, have labeled the proposed changes “a retreat from progress” that would take Texas “back to the bad old days of pervasive tracking.”

The legislation, approved by the Texas House of Representatives, is pending in the Senate. It’s unclear where Gov. Rick Perry (R) stands; a spokesman said that the governor supports efforts to reexamine how high school students are prepared and evaluated but also that “he will protect the academic rigor that prepares students for career and college.” Retreating from a path the state blazed — particularly when other states are following with toughened graduation requirements — will hurt Texas and many of its children.

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