The first major floor debate over education this year promises to be a long one Tuesday as lawmakers stake out lines in a battle over what high school students need to learn — and how much they should be tested on it — before they graduate.
Legislators have pre-filed 165 proposed amendments to House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock’s House Bill 5, a comprehensive restructuring of the state’s high school graduation requirements and student assessment systems. Most of those amendments will likely fail — Aycock said Thursday that he hoped to keep the bill narrowly focused as it heads to the Senate — but the proposals could provide a window into what has become a key fight of the session.
While educators and parents, along with representatives from industry and trade groups, have turned out in droves at committee hearings to support provisions in the bill that modify the course requirements and reduce the number of standardized tests high school students must take to graduate, opposition to the bill has grown increasingly vocal.
The Texas Association of Business, whose president and CEO, Bill Hammond, said the legislation and proposals like it in the Senate threaten to reverse the state’s progress in improving students’ preparation for college and careers, has led the critics, which now include national education advocacy groups La Raza and the Education Trust.
Over the past several years, Texas has had “significant gains among all students, especially those of low income backgrounds,” in college and career preparation, said Sonia Troche, the Texas regional director of La Raza. “What they are doing now is actually helping.”
Primary among the concerns of opponents like Troche is a provision that would do away with the state’s so-called 4X4 graduation plan, which requires four years of courses in math, science, social studies and English. Instead, students would complete a “foundation” program with four credits in English, three in math, two in science, three in social studies and then they would earn "endorsements" by completing five credits in areas of study like humanities, science, engineering, technology and math, or business and industry.
The array of choices available to students could prove difficult to navigate for low-income and minority students whose parents are not acquainted with the system because of language or educational barriers, Troche said. Under the current plan, the default is a diploma that requires all of the courses needed for college readiness. The proposal would also reduce the number of end-of-course exams students must from 15 to five total tests, one each in reading, writing, biology, algebra I and U.S. history.
“To a family that may not know all the details, they might think their son or daughter just graduated from high school and are now eligible for college,” Troche said. “But, in fact, if they did an endorsement type of program and graduated from high school but didn't complete all the required courses, they would have a high school diploma, but would not ready to go to college.”
The proposed reduction in high-level courses that students must take to graduate, specifically algebra II, and the removal of an assessment in English III, has raised particular concern.
“The most important thing is to make sure that every child has the opportunity to go to college if they choose to, or to be able to go to a technical school or graduate with the idea that they will go to a job, and that they are qualified to do that,” said former state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who as chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee helped create the current system.
Changing requirements around algebra II and English III threatens a “well known, well documented” connection to college readiness, said Shapiro, who now lobbies for an education reform group that has not taken a position on the legislation.
State education officials like Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Raymund Paredes and Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams have joined Shapiro and Troche in sounding an alarm about the proposed changes.
Paredes said in a February interview that even if there are currently high-paying jobs in fields that do not require post-secondary education, the job 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.
At a Senate hearing Monday, Williams said he would recommend the number of required end-of-course exams to be reduced to eight — three more than under the HB 5 plan in either geometry or algebra II, world history or geography, and chemistry or physics. In remarks delivered around the state, he also said he does not support moving away from the 4X4 curriculum.
Aycock said his legislation reflects an effort to provide more preparation for students who want to enter the workforce after high school while still encouraging schools to push them to achieve as much as they can.
Debate over the proposal, he said, centered on two questions.
“One, does everyone need to [earn] a four-year degree?” he said. “And two, does every kid need to take algebra II?”
His bill embraced the response of “not everyone, but a lot of them,” he said, adding that he was not convinced that algebra II was as strong predictor of college success as the legislation's opponents suggested.
The rigidity of the current system forces a “one-size-fits-all” approach that can prevent students from exploring their interests, leaving them less engaged in school, Aycock said. And a lack of options for career training, he said, leaves a gap in the state's workforce.
Industry and trade group back that assertion. Chief among the legislation’s supporters is the Jobs for Texas Coalition, which is made up of 22 industry and trade organizations, including the Texas Chemical Council, the Texas Medical Association and the Texas Association of Builders.
The proposed reforms take “a pragmatic view that meets the diverse interests of our student population and our economy,” said Hector Rivero, president and CEO of the Texas Chemical Council.
Rivero challenged critics — including representatives from companies including Exxon Mobil, IBM, Lockheed Martin and Intel who circulated letter to lawmakers urging them to keep the 4X4 standards — who argue that modifications in the legislation would reverse academic progress in the state.
He said it was time to listen to educators across the state who say that overly stringent requirements were driving students away from academic success.
“They will tell you the opposite is true,” he said.
A previous version of this story appeared in Texas Weekly on March 22, 2013.