Just seven years ago, the Texas Legislature mandated that all high schoolers pass two algebra courses and geometry to graduate. This summer, the state reversed course, easing its strict math, science, and social-studies requirements to free up class time for job training.
Texas legislators want to create a more flexible system that helps students who aren't headed to four-year colleges enter the workforce. And it's not just Texas. State legislatures nationwide are enacting laws to promote career and technical education and workforce training in high school.
But that approach carries risks. While it's true that not all students will go on to college, pulling back on college preparatory coursework has to be handled carefully in a state like Texas, with its hundreds of thousands of low-income and minority students. They're the students who would benefit from college the most — and who need the most help getting there.
New laws in Texas, as well as in Florida, de-emphasize Algebra 2, the math class required for admission to four-year colleges and placement into college-level math at two-year institutions. Knowledge of Algebra 2 is considered an indicator of college readiness under the Common Core standards, which have been adopted by 45 states, including Florida.
More than half of public-school students in both states are nonwhite. Fifty percent of Texas students and 56 percent of Florida students qualify for federally subsidized lunches. It's particularly important that low-income, Hispanic, and African-American students leave high school qualified to further their education — even if they don't plan on doing so right away. A college degree is the most important driver of social mobility. By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require some kind of postsecondary education, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.
Practically speaking, Texas's earlier college-prep coursework recommendations didn't fit reality. Despite the high bar, only about half of the state's high school graduates immediately headed off to college of any kind. "We wanted to give students and parents more flexibility, to not only be college-prepared — which I think we're doing a pretty good job of — but perhaps to expand that preparation to folks who may not be going to college," Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, a Republican who chairs the Texas House's Public Education Committee, says of the revision. The goal isn't to dumb down the curriculum, he says, but to let kids pursue a path that might not have been open to them before. The state's education-accountability system still rewards schools when students demonstrate college readiness.
Rather than a recommended four years each of math, science, and social studies, Texas students now need just three credits in each and must take five end-of-course tests rather than 15. Students will be able to earn "endorsements" in areas such as public service, arts and humanities, and business and industry. The State Board of Education is currently debating which endorsements will require Algebra 2.
Florida's new law rolls back the requirement (signed into law in 2010) that students take Algebra 2 and either chemistry or physics and allows some industry-focused courses to satisfy subject-area requirements. Students who earn advanced academic credits will receive a "scholar" designation on their diplomas, while students who earn one or more industry certifications will earn a "merit" designation.
Over the past decade, states pushed for more advanced academics — more polynomial equations! — but the rising cost of college, the dubious return on investment from a liberal-arts degree, and the competitive salaries earned by the holders of technical two-year degrees have caused many states to rethink their policies. The 16 other states that require Algebra 2 are staying the course for now, but that could change when legislatures reconvene next year.
Setting up a noncollege track doesn't necessarily have to divert students from postsecondary education. High school programs aligned to industry often prepare students for an associate's degree. Students who fill entry-level jobs in health care and other sectors are expected to go back to school to advance their careers.
And it's worth debating, too, whether Algebra 2 should be the gateway course for college admission. Although taking advanced high school math has been linked to college and career success, it's unclear if the connection is causal. A sequence of math courses that lay the groundwork for calculus has little relevance in most careers, let alone in the liberal arts.
Still, the advantage of state educational requirements that require advanced academics is that they clearly communicate what top colleges want. "There may have been a misperception that by requiring this course sequence in math, people were saying that all students had to go to college, and that was never the case," says Jennifer Dounay Zinth, senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States.
Nationwide, disproportionate numbers of affluent white students head to selective four-year colleges, while most low-income, minority students go to two-year colleges, open-access institutions, or no college at all. Information disparities are at least part of the problem. A 2003 Stanford University study of six states found that less than 12 percent of high school students were aware of course requirements for their local universities. In fact, simply mailing high-achieving low-income students more college-enrollment information increased the number of applications those students sent to selective colleges, researchers at Stanford and the University of Virginia recently found.
So the question is far from settled whether states are properly serving their minority students by lowering academic requirements. The added flexibility may give some high schools an excuse to marginalize their students by not preparing them for college. And, by doing so, not preparing them for a job market that rewards postsecondary education.
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.
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