Education experts nervous over Texas dropping algebra II mandate
AUSTIN, Texas — Eight years ago, Texas started a trend by making high school students tackle algebra II. The state is now abandoning it, a move that is making some policy experts nervous.
School districts are praising the move because it gives them more flexibility. But some policy experts are concerned because nearly 20 states have followed Texas' lead in requiring the rigorous course. They are worried that these states might now drop it.
Supporters say that requiring fewer courses gives students more time to focus on vocational training for high-paying jobs that don't require a college degree. These include jobs at Toyota's factory in San Antonio or oil and chemical giant BASF's facilities on the Gulf Coast.
But critics say Texas — often watched for education policy — is watering down its standards. Test scores and graduation rates have improved since the tougher curriculum was adopted in 2006, they point out.
Texas Termed A Trendsetter
"Algebra II is a really, really powerful predictive value on whether kids go to college, but it goes on and on after that," said Patte Barth, director of the Center for Public Education.
Students who take algebra II are more likely to have a full-time job with benefits after graduation and be healthier, Barth said.
"It's not just for the college bound," she said.
Sixteen other states and the District of Columbia now require algebra II for most students, while Minnesota and Connecticut will do so soon. But Texas will join Florida in dropping the requirement when its Board of Education gives final approval next week. Texas and Florida are two of the country's largest states.
That is prompting some education groups to keep a close watch on other states because Texas' classroom policy can have national implications. The state's heavy reliance on tougher standardized testing became the model for the federal No Child Left Behind law. The law required public schools across the country to track students' progress and require schools to show improvement.
So many textbooks are bought in Texas that changes made for its classrooms can affect books sold nationwide.
"It's funny that the banner-turning state would be backing off not so many years later," said Jennifer Dounay Zinth. She is a policy analyst at Education Commission of the States.
She said her group is watching but hasn't seen similar moves in other states that require algebra II.
A Coalition's Strong Pressure
Legislators overwhelmingly approved the change in May. This came over the protests of Texas' higher education commissioner, Raymond Paredes. He warned that taking away requirements for advanced math and science would leave students badly prepared for college and technical careers.
Florida got rid of a similar policy in April. But unlike Texas, Florida's students are still expected to master some skills taught in algebra II.
Texas' about-face came after strong pressure from Jobs for Texas, a coalition of 22 industry trade groups. They argued the state's curriculum was too rigid and no longer met the needs of the modern workforce.
Mike Meroney, a coalition spokesman, said that with fewer state-mandated courses, districts can better work with local employers to prepare high school graduates for high-paying jobs.
"A lot of experts believe that problem solving is not exclusively learned in algebra II," Meroney said.
The new changes still require algebra II for honors diplomas, or for diploma plans focusing on science, technology, engineering and math courses. Honor diplomas can ensure automatic admission to Texas public universities.
Critics of the move include the powerful lobbying group Texas Association of Business, which accused Texas of dumbing-down its required courses. The Texas Latino Education Coalition said the change could allow low-income students with college potential to skate through high school.
But parent and teacher groups supported the change. They said it gave flexibility to school districts, which can still require algebra II. Stephen Waddell, superintendent in the Dallas suburb of Lewisville, said mandating algebra II was unnecessary because most high schoolers take it anyway.
Isabel Hutt credits algebra II for dramatically raising her SAT scores, but she admits she wouldn't be in the class if it weren't required.
"That would have been a dream come true, if I had stopped after geometry," said Hutt, an 11th- grader at Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio.
Do High Standards Cause Dropouts?
Chris Witte oversees chemical giant BASF's facility in Freeport, Texas. He said his company offers well-paying jobs for people with two-year degrees or high school career training.
"Is algebra II required for every job out at our site? The answer is no," Witte said.
Witte said the course is helpful, but he and Texas lawmakers argued the rigorous math course was pushing some students to drop out.
But the Texas Education Agency reported last summer that an all-time high — nearly 88 percent of students from the Class of 2012 — graduated on time. It was the fifth consecutive year of improvement.
Students' scores on college entrance exams also improved. According to data released in March, Texas students' ACT scores matched the national average of 20.9. And 48 percent, compared to 44 percent nationally, met math benchmarks that included being ready for college-level algebra.
Officials in Washington state recently compared school districts with and without tougher requirements. They found no correlation between graduation rates and higher standards, said Dounay Zinth, the education policy analyst.
Graduation rates in Indiana also didn't decrease with increased standards, she said.
Both states require algebra II. Other states that require the tougher math class include Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah.
"There's a fear that if we set higher standards for all students, more students will drop out," Zinth said. "And the data do not bear that out at all."