Trend-starting Texas drops algebra II mandate

Trend-starting Texas drops algebra II mandate
In a Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014 photo, math teacher Tracy Popescu, right, helps high school junior Carter Buono, 17, with a problem in an algebra II class at Flower Mound High School in Flower Mound, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Policy pop quiz: Does Texas - algebra II success?

The state that started a trend by making high school students tackle algebra II is now abandoning the policy in a move praise by school districts for affording more flexibility. But some policy experts are nervous because nearly 20 states have followed Texas' lead in requiring the vigorous course.

Supporters say fewer course mandates give students more time to focus on vocational training for high-paying jobs that don't necessarily require a college degree, such as 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. They note that test scores and graduation rates have improved since the tougher curriculum was adopted in 2006.

"Algebra II is a really, really powerful predictive value on whether kids go to college, but it goes on and on after that: more likely to have a full-time job, have a job with benefits, be healthier," said Patte Barth, director of the Center for Public Education, a policy group affiliated with the National School Boards Association.

"It's not just for the college bound."

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 - two of the country's most populous states - in dropping the requirement when its Board of Education gives final approval to a curriculum overhaul next week.

That's prompting some education groups to keep close tabs on other states because Texas' classroom policy can have national implications. The state's heavy reliance on tougher standardized testing under then-Gov. George W. Bush became the model for the federal No Child Left Behind law. Texas' textbook market is so large that edits 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, a policy analyst at Education Commission of the States.

She said her group is watching but hasn't seen similar moves in other algebra II-requiring states so far.

Legislators overwhelmingly approved the change in May, even though Texas' higher education commissioner, Raymond Paredes, said removing mandates for advanced math and science would leave more students ill-prepared for college and technical careers.

Florida scrapped a similar policy in April. But unlike Texas, Florida is among 45 states embracing national Common Core standards, meaning its students are 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 that argued the state's curriculum was too rigid and no longer met the needs of the modern workforce.

Coalition spokesman Mike Meroney said that with fewer state-mandated courses, school districts can better work with local employers to build curriculums that prepare high school graduates to move directly into high-paying jobs.

"A lot of experts believe that problem solving is not exclusively learned in algebra II," Meroney said. "It's a good healthy debate, but it shouldn't be a panacea."

The state had allowed students to avoid taking algebra II under the stricter rules by earning a "minimum diploma," and about 20 percent of students did so. But lawmakers said it wasn't enough.

The new changes still require algebra II for honors diplomas, which can ensure automatic admission to Texas public universities, or for diploma plans focusing on science, technology, engineering and math courses, or STEM.

Vocal critics include powerful lobbying group Texas Association of Business, which accused Texas of dumbing-down curriculum. The Texas Latino Education Coalition said the change could allow students from low-income backgrounds to skate through high school despite having college potential.

But parent and teacher groups supported the change, saying it afforded 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.

"The only way you are going to get flexibility is not requiring every single thing a student has to take," Waddell said.

Isabel Hutt credits algebra II for dramatically raising her SAT scores, but the 16-year-old admits she wouldn't be in the class if it weren't required. She plans to study Spanish and social work in college.

"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.

Chris Witte, who oversees chemical giant BASF's production facility in Freeport, Texas, said his company offers lucrative jobs for individuals with two-year degrees or focused 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 beneficial, but he and Texas lawmakers argued the vigorous 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 more strenuous requirements and found no correlation between graduation rates and higher standards, said Dounay Zinth, the education policy analyst.

Graduation rates in Indiana also didn't dip with increased standards, she said.

Both states require algebra II, as do 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," Dounay Zinth said. "And the data do not bear that out at all."