As Texas re-examines what students should learn in order to earn a high school diploma, no part of the state’s curriculum has attracted more attention than a single advanced math course.
In response to calls from educators and employers for graduation standards that allow more opportunities for career-training courses, the state Legislature is considering more flexible diploma requirements that do not include algebra II as a core credit for all students.
The push comes as some policy experts are also challenging the role of the course in preparing students for college and career. But it has raised alarm from business leaders and national advocacy groups concerned about the proposed changes’ effect on academic achievement in the state, particularly for low-income and minority students.
State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, who is in his first term as chairman of the House's Public Education Committee, is chief among those questioning algebra II’s status as a predictor of students’ future achievement.
A veterinarian and former school board member, Aycock recently led the House in a vote to undo the current default curriculum of four years each in science, social studies, English and math in favor of a plan that maintains the four years of English but drops to three years of science, math and social studies to allow for courses in specialized areas like the humanities, engineering or business. The legislation’s most controversial element is the elimination of algebra II as a core required credit, a policy in place for students who entered ninth grade in 1999 and later. Students who opt for a college preparatory curriculum would still take the course.
During the floor debate on the measure, which also significantly lowers the number of state-mandated standardized tests, Aycock said the new plan would allow students who do not pursue post-secondary education, which currently make up almost half of high school graduates in the state, to gain skills they need to enter the workforce. More relevant curriculum, he said, could also help keep more students engaged in their education so that more do decide to continue it after high school.
Questioning whether the algebra II's reputation as a indicator of students’ potential was “causational or observational,” he said the advanced math course should not be “the determining factor in a student's future.”
All but two of the state House's 150 members voted in favor of the measure.
In reconsidering algebra II, Texas is bucking a national trend toward more stringent high school math curriculum it helped launch a decade ago.
“You were out front in terms of adopting these requirements, and now you are certainly the place where there is the greatest debate and the most serious attempt to scale them back,” said Mike Cohen, the president of Achieve, an organization formed by governors, business leaders and corporate foundations that advocates for college-and-career-ready high school graduation requirements nationwide.
The state adopted what were among the country’s first college- and career-ready graduation standards in 2006, leading a growing national march toward advanced high school math requirements. Since 2004, when Arkansas was the only other state with an algebra II requirement, according to Achieve’s data, 21 other states have adopted advanced algebra courses into their standards, and three others — New Jersey, Maryland and West Virginia — are considering plans to increase the rigor of high school math.
If Texas moves away from those requirements, Cohen said, it threatens the progress it has made in closing gaps between the educational attainment of white and black and Hispanic students, who along with economically disadvantaged students, have all improved the rates at which they go on to post-secondary education in the past decade.
Factors like quality teaching, solid foundation in earlier grade levels, and the opportunity for continued application of concepts all affect students’ preparation for college, Cohen said. But he said there was a lack of empirical data offering firm conclusions on their success.
“It's a difficult picture to disentangle and you don’t want to sit around and wait for a gold-standard research study to sort it out,” he said.
A seminal study bolstering the connection between algebra II and student achievement came from two researchers at the Educational Testing Service, Anthony Carnevale and Alice Desrochers, who followed students from 1988 to 2000 and showed that completing the course increased their chances of getting a top-tier job.
But Carnevale, now the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said that although he still believed algebra II was “pivotal,” policymakers had heard the study’s conclusions “much too loudly” as a call to increase standards.
“It is becoming a problem because we keep upping the ante and standards never get high enough and at some point nobody's going to graduate from high school, except the two kids that are going to Harvard,” he said.
The challenge for educators is not to force students to take more advanced math, said James Stone, the director of the University of Louisville’s National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, “it's getting them to learn the math they really need."
Stone said his research looking at high school curriculum and scores on the ACT, a college admissions exam, suggests students do not need algebra II to meet the exam's college-ready standards. The mathematical concepts students needed to master to succeed on the ACT, he said, were covered in algebra I and geometry, courses typically taken in middle school.
“Having a chance to apply the skills over and over again, that's where you really learn it deeply,” he said. “Unfortunately because it's easy, we'll define rigor as more classes, and that's what led us to this conundrum we’re in now.”
Jan Rosenbalm, a pre-calculus and algebra II teacher in Boles Independent School District northeast of Dallas, said she worried about the consequences of allowing students to opt into more advanced math courses instead of allowing them to opt out, which is the state’s current approach.
"There are students out there that do not have those parents that understand how important math is. And they aren't going to push the children to do what's best for them to prepare them for their future," she said. "If we don’t, as a state, require high expectations, there are a lot of students out there that aren't going to get what they need to be successful."
But those expectations did not have to include a strict algebra II requirement, she said, though in its place students should take an in-depth course exploring detailed real-world applications of mathematics.
Aycock’s bill awaits approval in the Senate, where in spite of similar proposals from leaders there, signs of opposition are appearing. Gov. Rick Perry, who could ultimately veto such legislation, has stayed out of the fray publicly. Citing a policy against commenting on specific bills until they reach the governor’s desk, a spokeswoman issued a statement saying that while Perry supports efforts to re-evaluate the state’s high school curriculum, he intends to “protect the academic rigor that prepares students for career and college.”
In the meantime, Walter Jackson, a high school principal completing his 20th year in Alief Independent School District, said the state’s re-examination of graduation requirements should not be interpreted as a retreat from high standards.
Pointing to improvement the state has made in graduation rates and standardized test scores over the past decade, he said the state was "not running from something we haven't been successful in."
"We are trying make opportunities more relevant, more accessible, and more immediate," he said. “The world is changing, conditions of the world are changing, the workforce has changed, and we are trying to keep up with the changing standards in this global economy.”