Senate Approves New High School Graduation Plan

Sen. Dan Patrick R-Houston, speaks during budget bill SB1 discussion on March 20th, 2013
Sen. Dan Patrick R-Houston, speaks during budget bill SB1 discussion on March 20th, 2013

Texas high school students would have new curriculum requirements under legislation unanimously passed by the Senate on Monday — but they won't be the ones the House envisioned when it approved its version of the legislation more than a month ago. 

The Senate version of House Bill 5, which the upper chamber reached consensus on after weeks of extensive negotiations that continued through Monday afternoon, still drops the number of required state exams for graduation from 15 to five in biology, U.S. history, algebra I, and English I and II. It would still allow students to complete diplomas in specialized areas or "endorsements," like humanities, science and technology, and business and industry.

But it changes the courses that students must complete to graduate under those endorsements, most significantly requiring four years of math for all of them. 

The legislation now goes to conference committee, where representatives from both chambers will meet to work out their differences.

Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said HB 5 provided the structure for "the most rigorous, most flexible" high school graduation plan in the country. He also emphasized the legislation's commitment to reducing high-stakes testing, which he said had taken the "fun out of teaching."

Many Senate Democrats, along with Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, favored preserving the current "4x4" curriculum — which includes four years each in science, social studies, English and math — but adding more options for career skills and advanced math courses. Patrick pushed to keep the plan passed out of his committee, which has four years of English but drops to three years of science, math and social studies in certain endorsements to give students chances to take specialized courses. 

The proposal that emerged from Senate negotiations, which Patrick called the "flex 4x4," puts all students on track to completing four years of math and English, with algebra II as a requirement for all endorsements except the business and industry track. The advanced math course, which some education researchers say increases students' chances at post-secondary success, would be required for automatic admission to state colleges under the top 10 percent rule and to apply for certain state scholarships.

Under the House version, students would opt into a college preparatory curriculum with the additional years of math, science and social studies. That plan has encountered criticism from groups like the Texas Association of Business, La Raza and the Education Trust, which believe it would reverse the state’s progress in improving students’ preparation for post-secondary education and result in fewer low-income and minority students heading to college. 

During debate on the floor, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, made clear she had those concerns even with the upper chamber's version of the bill. She offered several unsuccessful amendments that she said would make sure "we are not failing our kids because we are so afraid and concerned with failing ourselves."

Those included proposals that would make it more difficult for students to choose a minimum graduation plan and that would require students who choose the business and industry endorsement to be notified that they would not be eligible for the top 10 percent rule. 

Other lawmakers also questioned whether students and parents would receive the guidance they needed to navigate the various graduation plans. 

"There are a lot of students who don't have parents who went to college," said Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, adding that he worried that the new requirements could increase the burdens on already overtaxed high school counselors. 

Patrick acknowledged the need to make sure counselors had support, but said lawmakers would work on that through other legislation.

House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, along with other supporters of the legislation, which in hearings have included educators, parents and industry groups, has argued that changes are needed to current graduation requirements to allow students who do pursue post-secondary education — which currently make up almost half of high school graduates in the state — to gain the skills they need to enter the workforce. More relevant curriculum, he says, could also help keep more students engaged in their education so that more do decide to continue it after high school.

The Senate also modified a provision that would have moved the state to an A through F school accountability system. With the support of Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, Patrick accepted an amendment that only districts — not individual campuses — would receive the A-F grades. If HB 5 passes with that provision intact, it would affect the Texas Education Agency's current plan to move ahead with A through F ratings for both campuses and districts.

Although only two House lawmakers voted against HB 5's final passage — Reps. Mark Strama, D-Austin, and Naomi Gonzalez, D-El Paso — there are signs that the lower chamber could support a compromise. During floor debate on the bill, Strama introduced an amendment aimed at addressing some of the same concerns Van de Putte has cited in the Senate. His amendment would have automatically put students on the path to completing curriculum that would prepare them for college and allow them to opt for the endorsement option later.

The measure failed in a 97-50 vote, but not before it drew bipartisan support, which included Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas. 

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