It isn’t often that a major national newspaper shines a light on a state’s educational system, but this is what the Washington Post did in its editorial on April 7. From the editorial:

WHEN TEXAS TOOK the nation’s lead a decade ago in putting new rigor into high school graduation requirements, some worried it would cause more students to drop out or increase the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers. The opposite has proved true: Graduation rates have increased, with the greatest growth occurring among low-income and minority students. Given such success, it’s bewildering that the state would roll back, as is now under serious consideration, these high standards. Working their way through the Texas Legislature are bills that would rewrite high school graduation requirements to reduce the number of end-of-course exams required for a diploma and loosen the required courses for graduation. Under the state’s current recommended course load, high school students must complete four years of coursework in English, mathematics, science and social studies. Under the revised requirements, a new “foundation” diploma would allow students to take more electives with lightened course requirements. No longer would Algebra II or advanced science courses be required.

What happened? The simple answer is that parents, teachers, and even the state’s top former education policymaker, Commissioner Robert Scott, revolted against the state’s accountability system. In a dramatic speech to a conference of superintendents in 2011, Scott apologized to the superintendents in attendance for placing so much weight on standardized tests. Parents groups objected that too much time was spent in “teaching to the test.” Tom Pauken, then the chair of the Texas Workforce Commission, argued for a curriculum designed for students who did not see themselves as college bound and wanted to learn a trade.

I believe Pauken was right to call for an alternative curriculum for career and technology students. Such a curriculum could keep many students in school who otherwise might have dropped out. For the students who remain in school and intend to go to college, testing advocates didn’t want to change the number of end-of-course exams being required. The issue, of course, is not how many exams there are, but how rigorous they are, and how well they test student achievement.

The big concern is that the state’s commissioner of higher education, Raymund Paredes, told the Dallas Morning News that House Bill 5, the basic blueprint for the path to high school graduation, does not achieve college readiness. The Post may be right that Texas is taking a step backward.

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