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Districts Begin Preparing for New Guidelines on High School Diplomas

As educators welcome the coming changes in state testing requirements, some school districts are looking ahead at another part of recently passed education reform. The state is expanding the courses that will count toward a high school diploma.

Veteran English teacher Sara Brenan works with students at Anderson High School's summer program in the Austin Independent School District.

Some Texas high school students who failed state standardized exams this spring were given a reprieve under the comprehensive education bill that Gov. Rick Perry signed in early June.

Under current law, they would have had to take 15 state standardized exams to graduate. With the changes in House Bill 5 that begin in the coming school year, they will need to pass only 5. Shortly after Perry signed the bill, which cleared both chambers of the Legislature unanimously, the Texas Education Agency announced that current high school students would not have to retake exams they had failed in any of the six subjects that the new law removed from the state’s testing requirements. They are algebra II, chemistry, English III, geometry, physics and world history. 

But as educators welcome the relief that the legislation brought from what were widely considered onerous state testing requirements, some school districts are now looking ahead at another part of the law, which will take effect in the 2014-15 school year and broadly expand the courses that will count toward a diploma.

“It’s truly changing the paradigm of how we will begin preparing our students for a successful career,” said Mary Ann Whiteker, the superintendent of Hudson Independent School District in East Texas near Lufkin, who also leads a statewide association of small and midsize schools.

The legislation did away with a state curriculum that required all students to take four years of math, science, English and social studies unless they opted for a “minimum” diploma plan. Now all high school students will take a foundation curriculum that includes four English credits and three credits each in science, social studies and math. Most will then go on to earn fourth credits in math and science, along with other required course work when they select a diploma "endorsement" in one of five areas: science and technology, business and industry, public services, humanities or a multidisciplinary option.

School districts have the next year to make the staffing decisions and develop the relationships with local community colleges and universities that for many of them will be necessary to begin offering the range of courses needed to complete the endorsements. A number of practical issues, including what happens when students transfer into a district that does not offer the endorsement option they are completing, are awaiting the education agency’s input. And the State Board of Education must also still approve the courses that will be available to students completing the various endorsements.

Though the law requires only that a district offer the multidisciplinary endorsement, many districts will still strive to increase their offerings. For small and rural districts, already stretching staff to provide the basic curriculum, that poses a particular difficulty.

“It will be problematic for these smaller schools, especially if they want to offer more than one endorsement,” said Dean Munn, an education specialist with a state-run education service center in San Angelo. He said the center would encourage districts to develop collaborations and take advantage of virtual education to help fill in the gaps.

Whiteker agreed that it would be “very challenging” for smaller districts to offer all of the endorsements. But she said she saw an opportunity for districts to form partnerships, both with one another and with local community colleges and universities, to provide a wider range of endorsements.

“We are talking about beginning the process and having this year to really begin the conversations,” she said. “I think it’s critical that we truly evaluate our present programs and begin working with local work-force commissions to see what job availability is, as well as in the state, before we really start trying to expand. It’s quality over quantity.”

School administrators, many teachers and a coalition of employers in industry and trade say the new requirements will keep more students engaged in their education and therefore more likely to obtain the skills they need to enter the work force.

That is the hope of Carlos Rios, the superintendent of the San Felipe Del Rio Consolidated ISD in West Texas. Compared with those in neighboring districts, he said, many more of his students graduated under the “minimum” diploma plan, which could leave them with little preparation for college. Now, resources would that gone toward pushing more students to the “recommended” track, he said, will go to expanding the district’s existing nursing and welding certification programs in instituting the endorsements.

But that decision may also buoy the concerns about whether students would still be encouraged to complete the courses they need to prepare for college, concerns that drove criticism of the legislation by some state education officials, the Texas Association of Business and national education advocacy groups like La Raza, the Education Trust and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Celina Moreno, a legislative lawyer with MALDEF, said that although the law had improved over the course of the legislative process, her organization still had the same questions about how it would be instituted.

“We plan to remain engaged in this debate, she said. “This process is just getting started at the SBOE level in the development of those courses. We want to ensure that they are rigorous, that they are accessible to students in districts of all property wealth levels.”

She said that while she believed school districts remained underfinanced, much of the institution of the new graduation plans would depend on how effectively districts engaged with other educational institutions in their communities to provide opportunities — and how well they informed parents and students about which ones were available.

The communication with parents will fall in large part to school counselors, who will be charged with helping students develop their interests and match them to an endorsement plan. In many districts, that will signal a transition for counseling staff, from helping students keep track of their standardized test scores to helping them choose the right courses for their interests.

For many, that will mean having discussions with students as early as middle school about their future goals, said Sharon Bey, a high school counselor at the Houston area’s Cypress-Fairbanks ISD and president of the Texas School Counselor Association. She said that while her district already offered a number of career assessment tools, it would begin a process of matching those with the various endorsements.

“I like the idea that students will have the option of specializing in something,” she said. “I think it will make them think more about their choices.”

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