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Amid Anti-Testing Furor, a Focus on High School Graduation Requirements

Proposals to modify high school graduation requirements have won the support of educators and industry groups. But some worry momentum against high-stakes testing could sweep away progress in improving preparation for college and career.

Students of "Wind Ensemble 1," rehearse in the auditorium of Bowie High School in Austin, Texas.

Following backlash over the rocky institution of a new student assessment program last spring, Texas lawmakers are scrambling to scale back the testing system they passed four years ago. As the Legislature tackles such reform, attention has also focused on another area of education policy: high school graduation requirements.

Wrapped up in legislation that reduces the number of state-mandated standardized exams are several measures that redefine the curriculum prescribed for a high school diploma in favor of loosening the required courses for graduation.

The plans have received the endorsement of superintendents and public school educators, who say the new flexibility would give students the ability to focus on their interests and encourage them to continue their education. Industry and trade groups are also supportive, saying the changes would get people with the skills they need into the workforce sooner.

But some state education officials and business leaders said they worry that such legislation could sweep away a decade’s worth of hard-won progress in improving students’ preparation for college and careers.

“The concern about too much testing has been conflated with the curriculum itself, and I think those two issues need to be just disaggregated,” said Raymund Paredes, the commissioner of the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Michael Williams, the Texas Education Agency Commissioner, has also expressed caution about the proposals. At a February meeting of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, he implored higher education leaders to speak up on potential changes to high school graduation requirements — he said he feared that some of the proposals at the Legislature could “erase some of the gains” in public education.

The state requires high school students graduating on the “recommended” plan — which about 70 percent of students opt for over a “minimum” plan with looser requirements — to complete four credits each in science, social studies, English language arts and math. The Legislature approved the “4X4” curriculum, which took effect during the 2007-08 school year, in an effort to improve students’ preparation for higher education. The state has advanced in that area, although it is still behind where many educators said it should be. In 2011, 52 percent of students met the state’s “college ready” standards, which are based on standardized test scores in English and math, compared with 35 percent five years ago. Among economically disadvantaged students, the increasing majority of public school enrollment, 32 percent met the standards, compared with 18 percent five years ago.

Despite that progress, there has been a push to make sure career properly balances college in the “career and college ready” equation — and that the rigidity of the current plan does not create an insurmountable barrier for students who want to go directly into the workforce.

But officials disagree about how to do that — some said they believe the current system provides the academic exposure needed to succeed in higher education and some want more opportunity for high school students to explore different pathways to careers.

Measures from education leaders in the Legislature, including Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, the House public education chairman; Dan Patrick, R-Houston, the Senate education chairman; and Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, the Senate higher education chairman, move the state away from the 4X4.

Though their bills vary, each would require fewer years of math, science and social studies in favor of allowing students to earn diploma “endorsements” by completing additional credits in areas like humanities, engineering, and business and industry.

The state high school graduation requirements have become inflexible to “the point that it thwarts career development and student choice,” Aycock said this week at a hearing where teachers, superintendents and parents from across the state praised his suggested changes to state testing and graduation requirements.

Major public education advocacy groups and associations, including Raise Your Hand Texas and the Texas Association of School Boards, favor the shift, which they said would engage more students to pursue their career goals. A coalition of 22 trade associations — which Hector Rivero, the Texas Chemical Council President, told lawmakers was formed out of a concern that public schools did not produce enough skilled workers for the state’s surge of manufacturing and industrial jobs — said the proposed bills represented the needs of employers in the state.

“When you go out and you talk to superintendents and teachers and parents and kids and they tell you that nobody ever told us about these opportunities that existed and what the educational needs and requirements are to fill these jobs, that is what we feel is a travesty,” Rivero said.

But others in the education community, as well as business groups like the Texas Association of Business, said they fear that the proposals shift the focus too far from the academic foundation they believe students need for long-term success in the workforce.

Even if there are currently high-paying jobs in fields that do not require post-secondary education, Paredes said, that will not always be the case.

He cited a Georgetown University study that showed virtually all of the jobs created since the 2007 recession required education beyond high school, and that the opportunities for those without a college degree continue to dwindle.

“There’s an increasing amount of information that suggests career technical education is going to be done increasingly in two-year institutions, because once again, the demands of advanced manufacturing jobs and high skilled industrial jobs are growing,” he said.

High school, Paredes said, needs to prepare students to be successful in that setting. Discussion over the graduation requirements, he said, has given insufficient attention to whether students will be prepared to do that higher-level work once they leave secondary education.

An analysis from the state higher education board estimates that almost 6,000 additional students would need remedial education once they reached four-year and community colleges at a cost of $2.3 million annually as a result of altering the high school curriculum.

The talk of diploma endorsements has also raised old fears about the shuttling of minority and low-income students into vocational programs, a concern TEA chief Williams often cites in public remarks.

John Fitzpatrick, the executive director of Educate Texas, which promotes college preparation and workforce development, said he worried the lower-quality classroom instruction students in poor, minority neighborhoods all too often received could be exacerbated by the new plans that provide more options for career and technology education

“Having worked both as a school board member and a teacher, I also know too often what the default is," he told lawmakers.

But proponents of the more flexible graduation plans insist that a new day has dawned for career and technical education — and that it will not share the flaws of a previous generation’s vocational programs. Clinging to the current plan, they say, will only stifle students.

“I believe we have defined high standards and rigor in the state at a level which is inaccurate,” H.D. Chambers, the superintendent of Alief Independent School District, said at the House Public Education Committee hearing this week. “What I would argue is that this graduation flexibility plan would allow meaningful rigor. The endorsements create meaningful rigor in an area ... that student and that family has chosen to pursue.”

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