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Questions arise over legislative changes to state education standards

Wednesday, November 13, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Concerns over the standards of the State of Texas’ public education system found their way to an Austin Chamber of Commerce event Tuesday. Questions arose in the wake of legislative action taken during this past session to change some graduation requirements.


There, as part of a news conference held after the conclusion of the Chamber’s annual State of Education event, State Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes told reporters that public high schools should maintain an acceptable level of rigor.


“I think there is a consensus among all the (education) commissioners that the one thing that we are all committed to is rigor,” Paredes offered. “We need to make sure we maintain rigor, in some cases we need to increase rigor in grades K through 12.”


Parades’ statement came in response to a question from Austin American-Statesman reporter Kate Alexander about whether he would send a message to State Board of Education members about the lowering of graduation standards for Algebra II.


Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams also dodged the question. “That is a responsibility that is clearly directed to the state board and the chairman and her other members…are working as hard as they can to come to a proper understanding of what direction they want to go,” Williams said.


“I will have an opportunity to have a visit with them about what I think that direction is,” he continued. “Unfortunately I don’t think this is the moment for that.”


For her part, State Board of Education Chair Barbara Cargill hinted at a move away from standard Algebra II classes. “I can speak for myself personally,” Cargill began. “I want to make sure that our students are getting at least three years of what I would call rigorous math, or math that brings about critical thinking.”


Cargill argued that, among curriculum under development is an applied version of Algebra II, something that she said could be taught in a “hands-on” manner.


This all comes as Cargill and the rest of the State Board of Education are set to meet next week to discuss the new state public education landscape. State legislators voted this spring to reduce the number of mandatory tests Texas students must pass in order to progress through the system.


Legislators faced wide criticism – including some from Williams – over the bill. Critics suggested that the new standards, including the elimination of an Algebra II exit test, might be detrimental to state students.


With the elimination of the Algebra II test, the subject would not be mandatory for all students. In October, the Texas Education Agency issued implementation rules for the legislature’s changes. Those rules included a mandate for Algebra II coursework in all five education tracks created by the legislature as part of their education overhaul.


Advocates from the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) and the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) also participated in the conference. They offered global education criticisms that appeared aimed at Texas state education brass.


“In a state that trails the nation in college degree attainment, we are reducing college readiness requirements,” said IDRA senior education associate Laurie Posner.


MALDEF attorney Celina Moreno was also concerned. “Regardless of what you think of Algebra II – whether it is fundamental – the fact remains that the course is a determining factor for automatic admissions,” to college, Moreno offered. “So reducing it from the default curriculum plan reduces opportunities for students after high school.”


University of Texas Physics Professor Michael Marder echoed that thought. “I’d like to say to any parent or any student that would like to come to the University of Texas or other great Texas universities, if you want to do that, take Algebra II, take Chemistry, take physics – no one can take them away from you,” Marder said.


“If you don’t, you can have a job, but I think few people will say you could have a really great opportunity to have a career.”


Conference speakers were all on hand for the chamber’s event. Called the State of Education, it offers attendees a glance at education through a Central Texas focus. This year, the organization put an emphasis on STEM – or science, technology, engineering and math – education.


Speakers at that event noted the importance of engineering and mathematics skills for Central Texas employers.

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