Algebra II may not add up under new graduation plan

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Michelle Stoddart

Algebra II may be a thing of the past for many high school students, if the Texas Board of Education has its way. “Algebra II is a great course for many students, but we wanted to expand the number of course options a student can take to satisfy their math requirement for graduation,” Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick said. A component of House Bill 5, the earliest this would happen would be 2014 and 2015.

The Texas Board of Education has taken the first steps towards eliminating Algebra II as a requirement for most graduation plans in 2014 and 2015. According to House Bill 5, the college-prep class will still be required for “distinguished” graduation courses, for students pursuing careers in STEM (science, engineering, technology, and mathematics) fields, and for students who want to qualify for automatic admission to all public universities in Texas.

The proposal, which won support from the majority of the board, is a result of studies that show Algebra II does not seem to improve college prospects and that graduation rates decline slightly when the class is required.

“Because Algebra II has always been a gate-keeper course for advanced STEM careers, it is difficult to know if students will still have access if it is not required.  Students who might have entered STEM might not take it if not required to do so,” Elaine Allensworth, a Lewis-Sebring and UEI managing Director at the University of Chicago, author of the study, What Matters for Staying On-Track and Graduating, and coauthor of the book, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago said. “On the other hand, requiring it does prevent students from obtaining degrees – at both the high school and college level – and there is not much evidence that it is needed for most careers.”

Despite the unanimous vote of the 15 board members supporting the bill in May, many school district representatives recently spoke to the state board, arguing that Algebra II is essential for college readiness and significant on a global scale.

“We are disappointed that the State Board of Education does not view Algebra 2 as an educational necessity to our state because our students compete in a world economy,” El Paso Ysleta ISD Superintendent Anna Perez said at Austin to the board in November. “We are saddened that the SBOE does not share a broader and higher vision for out Texas students. Students from other countries are being prepared to be the best in math, science and technology. If we want to remain first world leaders, we must prepare our students at the highest level. This vote reflects that Texas will know less, rather than more.”

While requiring algebra and other college-prep classes has been shown to increase high school dropout rates, high-level mathematics can also encourage critical thinking and may be important for technical careers.

“I think Algebra II more prepares you for college, especially if you’re going to go into something more math specific,” algebra II teacher Kellie Thomas said. “But to get a career you have to go to college. It’s important because it teaches problem solving, it teaches analyzing, analytical thinking and problem solving skills. Students really should take it. I would be a little bit upset if they didn’t have to. And by a little bit I mean a lot.”

Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick has emphasized the importance of choice when it comes to advanced courses.

Every student learns in a different way, and every student has different goals. Algebra II is a great course for many students, but we wanted to expand the number of course options a student can take to satisfy their math requirement for graduation.”

— Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick

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“Every student learns in a different way, and every student has different goals. Algebra II is a great course for many students, but we wanted to expand the number of course options a student can take to satisfy their math requirement for graduation,” Patrick said. “There are other rigorous math courses that prepare students for higher education or in earning a certification. Critical thinking skills are not developed in only one course. As more advanced math courses are developed, students will have a greater variety of courses where those skills are integrated.”

Sponsors of the bill, including Patrick and House Public Education Committee chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, argued that the new graduation requirements will help students who do want to go into the workforce immediately to gain skills without being pushed to drop out. The requirements will also include significantly less standardized testing.

“If you require Algebra II for every student, you’re going to see a massive dropout rate,” Patrick told state board members in November, according to Dallas News. “The idea that we think as a board or a Legislature that every one of those 5 million students must have Algebra II to live the American dream is fool’s gold.”

Final decisions for House Bill 5 will be made by the Board in January.

“Students will have the benefit of being able to choose other rigorous math courses that are more relevant to them,” Patrick said. “Schools will be able to work with students in choosing courses that best fit them. HB 5 also enables businesses and higher education institutions to work with school districts in developing new rigorous courses to prepare students for a particular industry and higher education.”