Though a new law removes algebra II as a core requirement for a high school diploma, many Texas universities say they will not change their admissions standards to drop the advanced math course anytime soon.
Instead, universities will likely continue to raise the threshold for new applicants, said Dominic Chavez, spokesman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
“The trend has been higher admissions standards to attract and retain higher-caliber students,” Chavez said.
In January, the State Board of Education finalized new graduation requirements under the guidelines lawmakers passed in 2013 as part of House Bill 5, which changed curriculum and testing requirements in Texas schools. Starting this fall, algebra II will no longer be a part of the default “foundation graduation plan.” Instead, students will choose diploma "endorsements" in specialized areas like science and technology, business, or humanities, which will determine the math courses they take.
But if students intend to continue on to a public four-year university after high school, they will likely still need to take algebra II to have the widest range of higher education choices.
The state’s two largest public university systems, the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, said they will continue to require the course for admission. The University of North Texas System, which has four schools in the Dallas area, will follow suit.
“To be honest, HB 5 has kind of given us a headache,” said Jon Buchanan, assistant director in the office of admissions at Texas A&M University.
Buchanan said the university is concerned that students will assume they can gain admission under the new foundation graduation plan, but it falls short.
“We’re really trying to get the word out to students and counselors that our coursework requirements won’t change,” he said.
While Buchanan said A&M would still review a student under the new foundation plan, the minimum preferred coursework includes algebra II and is going to remain the same.
Along with state institutions, many private universities have also declined to change their admissions standards in response to HB 5. Administrators at Rice University in Houston and Southern Methodist University in Dallas said students admitted there usually have taken at least precalculus.
“We want the most academically prepared students,” said Wes Waggoner, the dean of undergraduate admissions at SMU. “That expects them to have gone above and beyond algebra II.”
The new law requires students to take the advanced math course if they want qualify for automatic admission under the state’s top 10 percent rule, which grants automatic admission to students at most public universities if they graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Students must also take the course if they opt for a diploma endorsement in science and technology, one of five high schools may offer. But students can also opt to graduate under a “foundation plan,” which does not require an endorsement or the advanced math class.
Proponents of the law argue that HB 5 will help not just the brightest students, but will prepare all students to enter the workforce, whether or not they attend college.
The foundation plan and its different endorsements are more rigorous than the previous graduation plans, which included a minimum plan. Nearly 20 percent of the class of 2012 graduated under the minimum graduation plan, which did not include algebra II, said Thomas Ratliff, a Mount Pleasant Republican who sits on the State Board of Education.
“We need to make sure we prepare every student for the next step in life,” Ratliff said. “Not just those that are headed for college.”
Students will have the option to specialize early on and to take more courses that will directly benefit their careers, he said.
“It’s not that important what math classes students take,” Ratliff said. “What’s important is that they keep taking math throughout high school.”
But the new law has attracted vocal critics, among them business leaders and education advocacy groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who have raised concerns about the new law’s effect on students’ preparation for college.
The new diploma requirements may pressure universities into lowering their admission criteria, said Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business.
“When a large number of students start graduating under the foundation plan, universities will have to accommodate the market,” Hammond said. “Universities will have to lower their standards.”
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams is among those who have questioned the new law.
“We’ve got to recognize that the next generation of students, of doctors, lawyers, engineers and business leaders come from a body of students who today are brown, poor and black,” he said at a Texas Tribune symposium on demographics Thursday in El Paso. “And so we have to make sure that we maintain expectations for those youngsters extremely high.”
So far, the admissions standards have been reduced at only one of the state’s six public universities and at least one independent public university. A spokesman for Texas Tech University, which enrolls about 32,000 undergraduates at its flagship campus in Lubbock, said the school was updating its admissions standards to no longer include algebra II.
Texas Southern University, a historically black institution in Houston, also said it would also change its admissions policy in response to the new law.
Whether or not the school agreed with the new law, said TSU Admissions Director Brian Armstrong, “as a public institution in the state of Texas we have to do what we have to do to make sure we are honoring HB 5.”
The two other state university systems, Texas State University and the University of Houston, are still deciding whether to keep algebra II as a prerequisite for admission.
Disclosure: At the time of publication, Rice University, Southern Methodist University, the Texas A&M University System, Texas Southern University, the Texas State University System, the University of Houston and the Texas Association of Business were corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. (You can also review the full list of Tribune donors and sponsors below $1,000.)