Bad Education Bills, HB 1216 and 1503, Have Been Filed in the Texas Legislature
That Will Reduce Math and Science Graduation Requirements

An Investigative Report
by Steven D. Schafersman, Ph.D.
Texas Citizens for Science
2009 February 18

Two new and damaging education bills have been filed in the Texas Legislature by Representative Fred Brown, Republican of Bryan-College Station, and Representative Marc Veasey, Democrat of Fort Worth. Rep. Brown's bill is House Bill 1216 and Rep. Veasey's bill is House Bill 1503. Both will change the Recommended and Distinguished High School Graduation Programs. The law, if passed, will create three new graduation curricula for the two programs instead of the one curriculum that exists now, and this will undermine science and math education in Texas and perpetuate poor student academic performance in Texas.

Currently most Texas high school students that plan to graduate must take four classes each in English Language Arts, Social Studies (including Economics), Mathematics, and Science, the so-called 4x4 plan (consult the pdf file brochure or the Texas Education Code html version or pdf version). The plan was just adopted in 2007 and implemented for several reasons:

House Bills 1216 and 1503

What do Representatives Brown and Veasey propose to do with with HB 1216 and 1503? The bills are very similar, so I will discuss them together without distinction. It is likely that one or two similar Senate bills will also be filed soon.

Two of the three graduation curricula do away with the 4x4 program, requiring only three course of math and science. The two curricula are the "career and technology curriculum" and the "humanities curriculum." Most students would use these two curricula to graduate, especially the humanities curriculum. The third graduation curriculum is the "science and mathematics curriculum" which continues to require four courses of math and science. These three proposed graduation curricula are for both the Recommended and Distinguished Graduation Programs (the only difference between these two college prep programs is that the Distinguished Program requires three courses of a foreign language and the Recommended Program requires two). The two bills refer to the Distinguished Program as the Advanced Program; the Texas Education Code refers to this program as the "Distinguished Achievement High School Program--Advanced High School Program," so both names are correct. There is also a third high school non-college prep graduation program, called the Minimum Program, that requires three math and two science courses.

Representative Marc Veasey's bill, HB 1503, is particularly bizarre. It neglects to require any math or science credits or courses for the humanities curriculum. The traditional TEA graduation requirements ask for three courses of math and science, and presumably this would continue to hold, and the TEA staff will no doubt write rules requiring such, but it is interesting that HB 1503 was so hastily written that it neglected to specify math and science among the courses needed for high school  humanities students.

Texas currently has three graduation programs named the Distinguished (or Advanced), Recommended, and Minimum High School Programs. The first two are college prep programs, and the last is not. Right now the two college prep programs require the 4x4 curriculum plan to graduate, which makes sense, because college-bound high school graduates need four years of math and science in high school in order to succeed in college. So in 2009, only two years after implementation of the new 4x4 curriculum and right at the moment the first class that must follow it enters high school, why do the newly-filed House bills downgrade the college prep programs for approximately 80% of all high school graduates in Texas (I am assuming no more than 20% of students will opt for the proposed science and mathematics curriculum)? This is where the story gets interesting.

Representatives Brown and Veasey didn't just come up with this idea for three new college prep graduation curricula by themselves out of the clear blue sky. I do not know why they believed it would be appropriate to propose absurdly bad bills that dumb-down science and math education requirements in Texas so that high school graduates continue to fail to succeed in college and require remedial education. But it was clear that someone else came up with this bizarre idea to reduce graduation requirements only two years after there was a universal bipartisan effort in the Texas legislature to raise them, since the bills are very similar, and no doubt future Senate versions will also be similar. It turns out that the two Texas Representatives are friends of those responsible, and the two legislators were asked to file the special-interest bills on their behalf. Furthermore, having two very similar bills filed--one by a Republican and one by a Democrat--is a clever ploy, since it suggests bipartisan support. It took several days and the help of two individuals who sent me documents to allow me to discover who these people are, since it wasn't obvious at first.

Who Is Behind the New Multiple Graduation Curricula?

The persons ultimately responsible for the proposal to downgrade the Recommended and Distinguished High School Graduation Programs into three tracks, only one of which keeps the four years of math and science, are a group of six men in two organizations--Sandy Kress, Don McAdams, Mike Moses, David Thompson, Jim Windham, and Bill Ratliff. The first five published "Common Ground: A Declaration of Principles and Strategies for Texas Education Policy" on 2008 November 6. Mike Moses and Bill Ratliff are leading the "bi-partisan advocacy organization" Raise Your Hand Texas, which is lobbying for the new "Multiple Pathways to High School Graduation" program.

The Common Ground Declaration contains the new graduation plan proposal and much else. For the graduation proposal, the authors' recommendation is this:

College/workplace readiness as the standard for all high school graduates, with three diplomas and multiple curriculum paths within the recommended diploma. [p. 6]

Texas needs higher standards. Texas standards should be rated among the best in the nation. Currently, they are not....The Texas standard should be postsecondary readiness, defined as [being able to complete all the standard college degrees or technical certifications] without the need for remediation. [p. 6]

In an accompanying commentary (also here) on 2008 December 19, the five Common Ground authors say this:

Texas must establish college/workplace readiness as the standard for all high school graduates, with three diplomas and multiple curriculum paths within the recommended diploma. Texas high schools must recognize the varied interests of students and meet the needs of the workplace. However, all diplomas and curriculum paths must be rigorous and all high school graduates must be prepared for postsecondary success without remediation.

The Common Ground authors state that Texas education standards are low, so how is lowering such standards even more going to alleviate this problem? They correctly state that the Texas standard should be "postsecondary readiness...without the need for remediation," so how is lowering science and math standards for approximately 80% of high school graduates going to help them prepare for college without needing remediation? They claim that "all diplomas and curriculum paths must be rigorous and all high school graduates must be prepared for postsecondary success without remediation," yet their very plan works directly against this statement, since they are removing the senior year of math and science, leaving a gaping hole in continuous learning. I must respectfully point out that students were not prepared for post-secondary success without remediation under the pre-2006 graduation plan; that's why the standards were raised to include four courses of math and science--because in college many Texas students fail math and science. The fourth year of math and science is designed to build upon the previous three years of math and science and reinforce what they have learned, so they will be able to succeed in college.

Raise Your Hand Texas

Raise Your Hand Texas says this:

Multiple pathways to graduation require a rigorous course of study that integrates foundation subjects with career and technology, humanities, and the arts. Students should be encouraged to go on to college preferably four years or to a community college program. Our state graduation requirements must reflect the knowledge and skills that colleges and employers expect for success.

Keeping students in school should be a major goal for the state. Multiple pathways to graduation will provide the relevancy students need to maintain their course of study to be career and workforce ready for the 21st Century. [p. 7]

Raise Your Hand Texas claims that "Students should be encouraged to go on to college preferably four years..." and "Our state graduation requirements must reflect the knowledge and skills that colleges and employers expect for success," yet their "multiple pathways" to high school graduation plan works directly against these statements. When you remove the fourth year requirement for students in the proposed humanities curriculum (who plan to graduate with a four-year college degree)  and the career and technology (CT) curriculum (many of whom plan to go to community college for at least two years and achieve an associates degree), you will increase their probability of failing and necessitating remediation, not the goal of success without remediation. The new graduation plan advocates'  encouraging statements are so directly opposed to their actual graduation program proposal that it makes you wonder what their real intentions are, since the multiple pathway proposal will surely damage student chances of successfully completing college.

The "Common Ground Declaration"

The specifics and justification of the proposal for multiple graduation curricula are contained in the "Common Ground Declaration" starting on page 6:

High school students have a wide range of interests and career goals, and some are clearly more capable of high performance in rigorous courses than others. The high school curriculum must recognize this by providing multiple paths to a high school diploma. [p. 6]

Texas high schools should provide within the recommended diploma at least three curriculum paths, with variations in each, so that students can pursue their interests and career goals and prepare for postsecondary success. [p. 7]

The multiple paths we recommend, all of them rigorous, would allow students to choose paths focused on college or university enrollment or a technical career. Enabling students to choose one of these paths would help motivate them to stay in school through graduation because they would know they were preparing themselves for the work, career, or educational option of their choice. [p. 7]

The first curriculum path to the recommended diploma would be for students who plan to attend a college or university with a focus in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. [p. 7]

The second curriculum path would be for students who plan to attend a college or university with a liberal arts focus....These liberal arts courses, whether advanced placement or not, would match in rigor the advanced courses offered in math and science. [p. 8]

The third path would be for students seeking a career/technology (CT) industry certificate at graduation or the academic foundation that would lead to a CT certificate or degree in a technical field, most likely at a community college. This path would require applied math and science courses or applied math and science content embedded in required CT courses. This path would be equal in rigor to the college preparation path, and students who completed any CT variation within this path and then decided to enroll in a college would be able to do college work without remediation. [p. 8]

These three curriculum paths, with variations within each, would prepare every graduate for college or the workplace without remediation. [p. 8]

Based on the TAKS exit exam and national college readiness tests, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) calculates that only 48% of Texas students in the class of 2006 graduated college-ready in English while only 52% were college-ready in math. Just 35% were considered college-ready in both math and English. The impact of this is felt in the state's colleges and universities. In 2006, 53% of the high school graduates enrolled the following fall in Texas colleges and universities. Of these, 35% had to take at least one remedial class in reading, math, or writing before they could take credit-earning s courses. [p. 8]

What I have quoted above is literally all we have been provided to justify the proposed multiple graduation curricula. The Common Ground Declaration--and the literature from Raise Your Hand Texas--nowhere states in the description or rhetoric what the reality of these proposed multiple curricula entails: the death of the 4x4 graduation curriculum plan instituted by the Texas Legislature in 2007 and implemented by the Texas SBOE in 2008. I consider this omission to be suspicious and quite frankly mendacious, since the authors are not being completely forthcoming in their description. Fortunately, to implement a new graduation curriculum requires explicit legislation, and the House bills provide that. The Common Ground Declaration's multiple graduation curricula plan means that approximately 80% of Texas high school graduates will take only three courses of math and science, and their senior year will be devoted to non-math and -science electives. This prospect really hurts the goal of having students become "postsecondary ready without remediation," and it deprives Texas high school graduates of the math and science knowledge they will need to truly be successful in a highly technological society which economically competes with other global technological societies that don't deprive their students of the intellectual skills necessary to succeed.

The description of the liberal arts (humanities, fine arts) curriculum path, that it "would match in rigor the advanced courses offered in math and science," seems oddly defensive. This is, in fact, an excessive claim, especially since the humanities students are the very ones who really need better math and science preparation when they enter college and aren't going to get this under the proposed multiple curricula plan. For the CT curriculum path, I agree that it could be "equal in rigor to the college preparation path," but how is this accomplished without an equal amount of math and science? If high schools offered the technological and math-heavy CT courses that this claim implies then it could be done, but Texas high schools do not have these. I have been informed that  wood and metal shops have been removed from most Texas high schools because they are too expensive. If this is true, then it would be impossible to implement the CT curriculum path in most high schools.

The scary part of all this is that if you read the literature of Common Ground and Raise Your Hand Texas, their new graduation requirement proposals are accompanied by optimistic homilies ("postsecondary success without remediation," "provide the relevancy students need," be career and workforce ready") but with absolutely no empirical or research-based evidence that show that their new graduation curricula will succeed. The citizens of Texas are being asked to just accept the will and wisdom of the six gentlemen because Raise Your Hand Texas believes "that every child deserves a quality public education" and they "support high standards and expectations," and, we are informed, "By joining together we can raise expectations, raise the bar and raise our hands to ensure a brighter future for all Texans." These precious aphorisms are very, very inadequate justification to block a necessary and vital change to Texas high school graduation requirements. The 4x4 curriculum plan is recommended by education and curriculum experts for the several reasons discussed above, and should not be changed because some anti-education lobbyists--who are apparently working for superintendents who don't want to spend more money or hire more teachers, and for parents who don't want their kids pushed to excel or challenged to succeed--are telling Texas citizens that we don't need a fourth-year math and science course.

Newspaper Editorials That Support the Proposal

Another problem is the misrepresentation of what the 4x4 Recommended High School Program requires. The multiple graduation curricula proposal as expressed in HB 1216 is being popularized by a secret marketing campaign. (I am able to recognize the existence of such a plan because I have had to oppose similar marketing campaigns against science education for almost three decades, and I know all the strategies, tactics, advertising, framing, spinning, and rhetoric.) One important part of any marketing campaign is to get your message expressed in newspaper editorials written by a friendly and sympathetic editor. Typically, such editorials (and other marketing techniques) contain misinformation, since anti-science campaigns will not be overtly popular or beneficial and cannot be justified by logic or evidence. Subterfuge is necessary.

The editorial in the Austin American-Statesman supporting the new multiple graduation curricula is very misinformed, and I am not sure who is responsible, the editor or the Common Ground/Raise Your Hand Texas representatives who supplied the information. It is probably the latter, since editorials are often written with information supplied by a separate organization. It says this:

Under the proposal, students could choose a traditional college preparatory curriculum that includes four years of math, science, English and social studies....That would be similar to the current Recommended High School Program that requires students to pass upper-level math courses, including precalculus or calculus, physics and advanced science courses, and economics. Currently, all incoming ninth-graders are steered to that curriculum no matter what their future plans. If Ratliff and Moses are successful, there would be two other pathways to earn a diploma in Texas public schools. One would be a college preparatory curriculum that emphasizes fine arts. The third would be a career and technical curriculum that would prepare students for community college or jobs upon graduation....Texas should brace for a potentially huge spike in the number of students who drop out of school because they fail to pass calculus and advanced science courses.

This description is inaccurate. The Recommended High School Program does require a student to pass upper-level math courses, but precalculus and calculus do not have to be among these; these advanced math courses were included to scare the reader. Physics would be required even with a three-year requirement, and no "advanced" science course has to be taken, since several regular ones no more difficult than chemistry and physics would suffice, such as the new Earth and Space Science course and the Environmental Systems course. Again, the "advanced science courses" were included to scare the reader. Next, the editorial says there will be a fine arts college preparatory curriculum, but the legislation is not for fine arts, but for a humanities or liberal arts curriculum that will include the vast majority of high school students (all except those in the math-science and CT curricula, which I assume will be a minority totaling about 20%). But the most inaccurate and scary sentence is the last: students will NOT drop out of high school because they fail to pass calculus and advanced science courses. No one will be required to take these courses with four years of math and science, since an alternative minimum graduation program exists for students not wanting to go to college. Finally, most dropouts occur after the 10th grade, when students become 16; the fourth year of math and science will be taken in a student's senior year, long after the dropouts have left high school. The information in the quoted paragraph is a willful distortion of the true requirements that is meant to scare readers.

The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal editorial had another take:

Raise Your Hand recommends providing multiple pathways to graduation that would keep students engaged and prepare them for the workplace. What is the proposed change? Get rid of the mandated 4x4 graduation plan. It states that students must have four math and four science classes for a recommended or distinguished graduation plan. Texas doesn't have even one four-year university requiring four math and four science courses for admission.

This is pretty baldly stated. Two years after Texas instituted a four years of math and science graduation plan, the proposed change is to just "get rid" of them and go back to three years. It's true that Texas universities still require three years of math and science, but this current course requirement for university admission won't persist, so it's a very poor reason to use. Also, the fourth year of math and science are being required so students will actually be competent with the usual three years of math and science (remember reinforcement?) and not have to take developmental (i.e., remedial) courses in college.

The Minimum High School Graduation Program

A very important item I must emphasize is that the Texas Education Code has three, not two, graduation programs. The proposed legislation downgrades the Recommended and Distinguished Graduation Programs, which is where we want and need the 4X4 requirements. Four years of math and science is not a requirement for graduation. If students don't think they can handle the 4X4 requirements, they, their parents, and school officials can opt for the Minimum High School Program, which requires only 3 credits of math and 2 of science. This non-college prep program will allow any student to successfully take and become certified in a CT program that does not require too much math and science (and most don't).  It is not difficult to get permission to take the Minimum Program--students and their parents just have to ask--and I certainly agree that the Minimum Program will become more popular once the reality of 4x4 kicks in.

For a CT prospect, there is no stigma in graduating under the Minimum Program. The Recommended and Distinguished Programs are for students who plan to go to college and eventually obtain a four-year degree. Most CT students do not plan to do this (often a two year degree is sufficient). The point of making the Recommended Program 4X4 was to make students college-ready, which they were not under the old Recommended Plan, and would not be again if the proposed multiple curricula plan passes. It is quite unethical to use scare tactics about forcing students to take "advanced" math and science courses that they may not be able to complete. If they can't complete math and science courses in high school, why do they think they will be able to complete them in college?

The existence of the Minimum Program is also the solution to other complaints. If a student decides he or she can't pass more than three math and science courses late in high school, or the fourth year math and science courses become to seem too difficult, the student and parents can opt for the Minimum Program. A major justification for the proposed multiple graduation curricula plan is that students want and need flexibility in the design of their high school course plan. The existence of the Minimum Program offers this flexibility now; there is no need to dumb-down the college-prep Recommended Program for the chimerical justification of "flexibility."

More Arguments

I have heard that only students who plan to become engineers and scientists need four years of math and science. This is incorrect. Such students would usually take four or five math and science courses in high school under any circumstances simply to be prepared for college. It is, in fact, the humanities, liberal arts, and CT students who most need the four years of science and math requirement. They need these courses to prepare for college-level work and to be able to satisfy the typical college and university math and science program requirements.

Another problem with the proposed multiple graduation curricula plan is that if it passes, the need for a variety of 12th-grade capstone electives will disappear. Future university science majors will undoubtedly take an AP course, and AP biology, chemistry, and physics will no doubt continue to exist at many high schools. But what about Environmental Systems, Aquatic Science, Astronomy, and the new Earth and Space Science courses. These will disappear, since they were the courses designed as electives for humanities and CT students and science students who want to take a fifth science course in an area of interest. High school students, under the proposed plan, must take Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, and only students in the math and science curriculum path would take a fourth science course, and this would most likely be an AP course. If there will be no demand for other elective science courses, it makes no sense for school districts to offer them.

Several times over the last five years, SBOE members heard much testimony from the top geoscientists and Earth science educators in the state and country. They made clear the need for high schools--and especially Texas high schools--to offer an Earth Science course. This is also recommended by the National Academies of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, two organizations that are heavily involved in science education curricula. Texas, far more than most states, needs an Earth Science course such as ESS, and this course would be unneeded if the proposed multiple graduation plan passes. In my view, this would be an educational disaster for the state.

The proposed Common Ground/Raise Your Hand Texas multiple high school graduation curricula plan, with downgraded math and science requirements, will undoubtedly be chosen by the great majority of Texas students if it passes. Most students do not want to do extra, rigorous, intellectual work if it is not required; that it is beneficial for them to do this is irrelevant to many of them. The intellectual, technological, and humanizing benefits of learning a little more math and science and being better prepared for college level work without remediation would be lost for the this great majority. I suppose it is not a surprise to readers that most students (and American adults) are innumerate and scientifically-illiterate. Numerous studies reveal these facts--most Americans are subliterate, too, but this is another issue (for the record, I don't deny that citizens can function fairly well despite being subliterate, innumerate, and scientifically-illiterate). The cause of this failure, and the persistence of ignorance, is poor K-12 public education for the majority of students. I believe that the Common Ground and Raise Your Hand Texas proposed multiple graduation curricula plan, despite the optimistic and encouraging rhetoric of its advocates, will continue this backward and unfortunate trend.

I have heard that the proposed multiple graduation curricula plan has great grassroots support from parents who are worried about their children failing in high school by being "forced" to take too many difficult math and science courses. The worry may be true, but the solution is not to dumb-down the math and science standards back to their inadequate originals, but to help their children succeed by encouraging them to work harder to master the new requirements. I have heard that school district superintendents are still bitter about being forced to build more science labs and find more math and science teachers, and they also are in favor of the new plan. Rather than dumb-down the math and science requirements, perhaps they could spend some of the money they get for athletics instead on new science labs and pay math and science teachers  higher salaries so the jobs would attract more and better-qualified people. Improving working conditions for teachers, such as giving them control of their classrooms, would help with this, too.

But to my mind the worst thing about this new downgraded graduation curriculum plan is that the 4x4 plan was originally demanded by advocates for the minority student population in Texas. These individuals on the State Board of Education and in the Legislature have thought for years that minority Black and Hispanic students--who are now the majority of students in Texas--were being pushed into inferior, low expectation, and low achievement graduation curriculum plans. Do the six white men (five of Common Ground, two of Raise Your Hand Texas, one in both) really want to keep pushing their dumbed-down graduation curriculum plan in the face of minority opposition? But there's more. The Common Ground authors state that their proposal is a "compromise document" that they "put forward with the hope that it will serve as a starting point for conversations among a wide range of education leaders." This is perfectly reasonable, so why is their "starting point" now explicitly written in House Bills 1216 and 1503, ready to be made into law? Will the opposition be able to present its side?

Conclusion

I know how things are done in Texas, and these bills are no accident. This is a classic example of favoritism. The six gentlemen have more friends in high places than the average Texan, and they undoubtedly worked with Rep. Fred Brown and Rep. Marc Veasey to write this legislation. Do the six think that they are the only ones who have a stake in Texas education? There are dozens of other stake holder organizations and no doubt tens of thousands of individuals who are interested in Texas graduation requirements. All the scientists in Texas would be among these tens of thousands. Who will represent them in the Texas Legislature? I am angry that a proposal presented as a "starting point" is already close to the finish line in the Texas House. Now, pro-science, pro-math, and pro-education organizations will have to mobilize quickly to oppose these bad bills.


Texas Citizens for Science
Last updated: 2009 May 13