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The Political Hazards of Changing High School Standards

Voters asked lawmakers to cut down on the high-stakes standardized tests in schools and to replace some of the budget cuts made in 2011. Will they soon be asking why lawmakers made it easier to get a high school diploma?

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Of the three primary arguments about public schools under way in Austin, two are relatively easy for lawmakers to sell to the voters who put them in office.

Lawmakers are trying to replace billions cut from the public education budget in 2011. They haven’t reinstated all of the $5.4 billion that got whacked, but they have replaced most of it. And lawmakers will probably be back next year for a special session on school finance that might well replace the remainder.

A matter that might have been concerning for a politician preparing to walk into postsession town hall meetings has been defused.

Candidates who survived the campaign obstacle course in 2012 received one message loud and clear from voters: something must be done about the excessive number of high-stakes standardized tests in public schools. And you can see the results in legislation barreling its way through the Legislature that would lower the number of those tests to as few as five from 15. Message received. Another town hall problem defanged.

The third education issue is shaping up as fodder for an expected flurry of 2014 campaign ads. Lawmakers are talking about changes in high school graduation requirements.

They are not increasing the levels of mastery required to leave high school with a diploma. They are not trying to make sure more Texas students are ready for college.

What they are trying to do is make sure that more children get diplomas and that fewer of them drop out. Because not every student is university-bound, why should every high school diploma indicate that the holder is ready for college?

Nowhere in that description about the proposed changes in graduation requirements do you see the two words that will likely be featured prominently next year — in deep baritones and big red letters — in those campaign ads: “Dumbing Down.”

As they read this, some lawmakers are turning to their phones, their computers and their email, to protest. They want to recognize something not acknowledged in many high schools: Some students are going into skilled jobs without going to college, or without going for four years, and should be prepared for that work. Those students, the argument goes, don’t need algebra II or four years of science and social studies.

You can tell by lawmakers’ reactions to criticism about the proposal that they know this is a delicate issue. Still, it is difficult to say they are raising the standards for high school students. It is also hard to say they are even holding the line.

It’s going to be easier to get out of high school with a diploma, right?

Students will be graduating with insufficient coursework for college admission, right?

Some of the hard courses that might prompt teenagers to think about dropping out will no longer be a default requirement, correct?

That might raise high school graduation rates and lower dropout rates, which is good politics. That, too, can be turned into a campaign ad. But it does so at the cost of graduating students who don’t have the skills to go to college if they want to. It leaves colleges with the job — if they’re willing to do it — of teaching new students the things they should have learned in high school in order to perform at the levels required in college.

If they built cars like this, Texas would be heaven for mechanics.

Behind the scenes at the Capitol, different factions from the business community are busy lobbying on this, with one saying the marketplace demands skilled laborers who don’t necessarily want or need four-year college degrees. Another camp, veterans of No Child Left Behind, the state’s sweeping education reforms in 1980s and other fights, is trying to hold the line on standards and accountability. The debates over money and tests are important, and voters were clear about those issues.

Voters wanted to get rid of many or all of the tests. Some of them wanted money restored to schools. But through the other battles on schools, from vouchers to finance to testing to teacher pay to property taxes, voters have been relatively steadfast in wanting children to get good educations in Texas public schools — excellent educations, even.

Were they really complaining that high school in Texas is too hard?

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