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Algebra II Fight Moves From Texas Capitol to Education Board

The 15-member State Board of Education may decide to make algebra II a requirement for all students to receive a high school diploma — despite the wishes of the state Legislature.

Gov. Rick Perry after signing House Bill 5, an education reform bill, before a crowd in the Governor's Reception Room on June 10, 2013.

A battle over whether Texas should require algebra II for a high school diploma — a fight that many state lawmakers hoped they had already settled — has resurfaced as the State Board of Education convenes this week.

In May, the Legislature unanimously passed House Bill 5, a sweeping overhaul of the state's high school curriculum, in part to allow more opportunities for career training for students who do not intend to attend college. The changes in the new law included dropping an existing requirement that all students take algebra II to graduate in favor of allowing their selection of diploma "endorsements" in a specialized areas like science and technology, business or humanities to determine which math courses they take.  

But the legislation left it up to the State Board of Education to decide which courses students take to fulfill those endorsements, and now it appears the 15-member elected board may decide to make algebra II one of them. 

Since the end of the legislative session, a coalition of business groups and education advocates has mobilized to push the board to require the advanced math course because of concerns over how eliminating it would affect the academic progress of low-income and minority students in the state. The coalition has argued that the change will limit students' future career and academic opportunities before they understand the consequences.

"The freedom not ever to become an engineer is not the kind of freedom Texas students need," Michael Marder, a physics professor and director of the UTeach program at the University of Texas at Austin, said at a media gathering organized by the Austin Chamber of Commerce before the board's Wednesday hearing.

Opponents of HB 5 have also raised alarm about the potential funneling of low-income and difficult-to-educate students into less rigorous coursework, saying that without requiring algebra II in all endorsements, some could become "dead ends" for students.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate, who made the change with the support of many educators, parents and industry groups, have said that would run contrary to legislative intent. The clash has also heightened an already strained relationship between the Legislature and the state board, whose authority over matters like textbook and charter school approval lawmakers have gradually weakened over the last decade.  

"I do believe the clear intent of HB 5 was to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to public education in Texas," House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, wrote in a Nov. 18 letter to state board members. "If the Legislature wanted to prescribe algebra II for all endorsements, then I would have included that in the legislation."

Aycock's counterpart in the upper chamber, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, also wrote a letter encouraging state board members to respect lawmakers' intent when they passed the bill. 

"Requiring algebra II for every student will dramatically impact my goal of giving students a variety of rigorous course options in high school," he said. 

The debate comes as some policy experts are challenging the role of the advanced math course in preparing students for college and career — among them some of the same researchers whose work is often used to support a push to require the course.

Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told the Tribune in April that policymakers had heard the conclusions of his seminal 2001 study — which showed that completing the course increased students' chances of getting a top-tier job — "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," he said. "And at some point, nobody's going to graduate from high school, except the two kids that are going to Harvard."

Carnevale's remarks were echoed by school district officials who testified before the board Wednesday morning, including Sandra Stewart, an assistant superintendent for the Nacogdoches Independent School District.

"To require these courses in high school is to deny to many students the opportunity to graduate high school because they have not mastered a sequence of mathematics courses they will never need," she told board members.

But other education leaders are not yet convinced, saying algebra II remains essential for students' future success, whether they continue on to college or not. Both of the state's education commissioners, Raymund Paredes of the Higher Education Coordinating Board and Michael Williams of the Texas Education Agency, have said the law's elimination of high-level math requirements for some students could erase the gains the state has made in academic achievement. Williams is set to address the board Thursday.

Like the state's education community, Texas business leaders are also divided over the issue. Most industry and trade groups support the changes, saying that they would get people with the training they need into the workforce sooner.

"I represent a very large coalition of employers who are in near crisis mode in finding skilled workers in the state," said Mike Meroney of the Jobs for Texas Coalition, which is made up of 22 trade associations and more than 300,000 Texas business, including the Texas Chemical Council, the Texas Association of Builders and the Texas Bankers Association. 

On the other side are groups like the Austin Chamber of Commerce, which has led the charge to keep algebra II as a requirement, and companies like IBM, ExxonMobil and Lockheed Martin. 

State board members, who will take a vote on the issue Friday, are expected to hear testimony on the issue throughout Wednesday afternoon. 

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