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Texas Behind in Preparing Kids for College, Panel Told

Texas lags most other states in preparing high schoolers for college and needs to update its readiness standards, Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Raymund Paredes told state senators at a hearing on Tuesday.

The Senate Education Committee met jointly with the Senate Higher Education Committee on March 29, 2016 to discuss the ongoing implementation of HB 5 and teacher shortage and retention issues in Texas.

Texas lags most other states in preparing high schoolers for college and needs to update its readiness standards, including oversight of dual credit courses, Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Raymund Paredes told state senators at a hearing on Tuesday. And some did not appear ready to hear it. 

“We’re close to the bottom on SAT scores, so that’s cause for alarm,” said Paredes at a joint meeting of the Senate Education and Higher Education committees.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has directed the panels to assess college and career readiness projections ahead of the 2017 legislative session and examine the implementation of House Bill 5, curriculum and testing changes lawmakers passed in 2013 that critics say are harming progress on the readiness issue.

The percentage of Texas students prepared for college when they graduate high school has increased almost every academic year since 2006-07 when the state first implemented standards to measure readiness based on performance on the SAT, ACT and state standardized exams.

From 2007 to 2012, the percentage of college-ready graduates increased 20 points to 57 percent. It has slipped slightly since then, to 54 percent in 2014, the most recent available percentage.

Despite the upswing, newly appointed Education Commissioner Mike Morath told the committees Tuesday that college completion, employment rates and earnings have remained “essentially flat,” although he stressed that it’s too soon to tell where things are trending as HB 5 has only been law for a few years.

Groups including the Texas Association of Business opposed the legislation because it dropped the number of required state exams for graduation from 15 to five, eliminated two tests — Algebra II and English III — that had been used to measure college readiness and relaxed graduation requirements for some students by allowing them to pick graduation plans that don’t require four years of math and other coursework that helps with college preparedness.

Proponents, however, said the legislation was designed to accommodate students who are not college-bound while encouraging all students to start thinking about what they want to do after high school by picking one of five “endorsements,” such as humanities or business.

Warning of a world where “unanticipated advances in artificial intelligence are going to wipe out as many as two-thirds of the kind of jobs that exist today,” Paredes said a revision of the state’s eight-year-old readiness standards is overdue. He ticked off statistics that suggest the existing standards are inadequate. Among them: 40 percent of high schoolers with an A grade-point-average are being placed in developmental education once they enroll in higher education.

Paredes — who initially opposed HB 5 — didn’t explicitly criticize the bill, but at one point incited low boos in the hearing room when he said that people might not be so opposed to standardized testing if their kids were performing better on tests.

And when Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, asked Paredes specifically about endorsements, he said not all of them are preparing kids for college.

“And they’re not intended to,” Perry shot back.

Tuesday’s hearing kicked off with Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, bemoaning what he described as a decadeslong, mostly fruitless debate about the best way to ensure the state’s public school students have a seamless transition from K-12 to higher education institutions — a sentiment challenged by some of his fellow committee members and validated by others.

“We’ve been talking about this since as long as I’ve been a senator, and it’s still not complete,” he said. “There’s been some incremental success, but I don’t think it’s been sufficient.”

“We were talking about this 15 years ago and we’re still not there, so something’s not working,” Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said later in the hearing.

Responding to that concern, Morath and Paredes — who addressed the panels simultaneously — and some committee members emphasized there is an unprecedented level of communication and collaboration between K-12 and higher education institutions.

Still, Paredes emphasized, “We have a long way to go.”

The state has set a goal of seeing 60 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds with some kind of postsecondary credential by 2030. The most recent statistics show that 20 of 100 Texas 8th graders had secured a postsecondary credential within 11 years.

But Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said repeatedly Tuesday he thinks the state is on “leading edge of great innovation” and is making significant progress on the readiness issue.

“As far as the seamless, I think we’re growing into that,” he said.

He and Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, pointed to a huge jump in participation in dual credit courses and high schoolers graduating with associate’s degrees as evidence of progress. Last year, lawmakers approved a bill eliminating a maximum on the number of dual credit courses high schoolers can take.  

Bettencourt described dual credit as the “perfect hybrid between lower ed and higher ed.”

But Paredes said the state is not ensuring that dual credit coursework — overseen locally — is “appropriately rigorous” and needs to conduct a review.

Students should prove they are college ready before taking those courses, Paredes said, guessing it was “a limited pool” despite explosive growth in dual credit. The best way of determining readiness, he said, is with a special college entrance exam the state recently developed called the Texas Success Initiative.

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