Central Texas Districts Retool High School Programs Under New State Law
By Ann Choi
For Reporting Texas
Texas school districts are customizing their high school course offerings to comply with a new state law that loosens graduation requirements and creates pathways for students to focus on college preparation or vocational interests.
The new law, which takes effect for the incoming freshman class in August, replaces a system that requires students to take four classes each in math, science, English and social studies in order to graduate. House Bill 5 cuts the number of required course exams from 15 to five.
The measure provoked intense debate during the last legislative session. Supporters, such as some Republican lawmakers, say it eases pressure on students who struggle with advanced subjects, and gives them an education that will help them find jobs. The opponents included the Texas Association of Business, which said the changes will result in “ a mediocre education and low-wage jobs.”
The law gives school districts the flexibility to adjust their course offerings and determine what level of achievement they will require for graduation.
This fall, some larger districts in Central Texas will mandate that all students be college ready, which means taking more advanced classes, including Algebra II, while other smaller districts are promoting career-related tracks.
“It was very fortunate that [House Bill 5] made us look like we knew what we were doing,” said Greg Jung, an assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum for the Dripping Springs Independent School District. The district southwest of Austin had planned to change its curriculum to include more vocational classes well before the law was enacted. “We were just doing what we thought was best for students.”
The minimum level, called the foundation plan, requires at least three years of math, science and social studies and four years of English. Students can take additional classes in one of five fields to earn endorsements, which can be as a primer for what they will study in college or a springboard for their vocational careers. The most rigorous standard, distinguished level of achievement, requires additional classes in math, science and social studies.
Endorsements allow students to specialize in a subject area, whether they plan to go to college or pursue a vocational career. Endorsement “is a similar concept as a major you pick in college,” said Kelly Callaway, director of curriculum for the Texas Education Agency.
Students can choose from five options: science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); business and industry; arts and humanities; public services; or multi-disciplinary. Only students pursuing a STEM endorsement are required to take Algebra II.
In addition, students may opt for a distinguished achievement stamp on their diplomas by taking more challenging classes, such as advanced placement and international baccalaureate classes. Only students who graduate at the distinguished achievement level will qualify for automatic admission to state universities under the top 10 percent law, which guarantees college spots for the top 10 percent of each school’s graduating class.
The Austin ISD, with about 86,124 students, will set the distinguished level of achievement as its default graduation plan.
“We couldn’t take that risk of students not getting a chance” for automatic admission, said Paul Cruz, AISD’s chief schools officer.
Students pursuing the vocational track or not interested in college can, however, ask to graduate under different course plans.
Fifty-seven percent of the class of 2011, the most recent data available, enrolled in higher education, slightly lower than the 58 percent state average. AISD students also scored slightly higher than the state average on college entrance exams. On the SAT, AISD’s 1496 average score was 74 points higher than the state average; on the ACT, they scored 21.4, almost one point higher than the state average, according to the Texas Education Agency.
AISD began communicating the new requirements to parents, counselors and students last September. Around 6,000 ninth-graders and their parents were given surveys to indicate what their interests are to help decide which endorsements AISD will offer.
“Every high school in [AISD] will provide every endorsement course,” Cruz said. “Now there is a coherent sequence of courses that kids can complete. That gives them more opportunities to explore a career pathway they might be interested in.”
Parents and students were initially overwhelmed at the prospect of their children having to pick a career interest at a young age, Cruz said.
“Some parents say, ‘Wait a minute, my child is only 13 or 14, how could they select an endorsement for a career of their choice?’” Cruz said.
“It’s not so much that students have to make a career choice, “ he added. “It’s about finding out what they are interested in.”
Smaller districts in Central Texas see the issue differently. Thrall Independent School District, which covers western Williamson County, is hoping to give its students as many career-related experiences as possible to help them make career choices.
“I’ve always been a vocational person who supports the vocational side of education,” said Tommy Hooker, Thrall’s superintendent.
The district will have the foundation plan as the default graduation plan, and won’t require students to get the distinguished achievement level. Partnering with the Texas Tech Technical College this year, the district will offer eight certifications including auto tech, culinary arts, welding, plumbing, electrical and air conditioning. The plan, which has been a year in the making, aims to encourage students to experiment with different career interests, rather than have them decide on a career path by the time they graduate.
Thrall High School, with 626 students, had a 92.7 percent graduation rate last year, according to TEA. While the district’s average SAT and ACT scores, 1375 and 18.2, were below state average, three-quarters of the 2011 graduating class are enrolled in higher education, compared to a 58.3 percent state average.
“We are going to give them a step ahead into the real world,” Hooker said. He said it was not his goal for every student to have a career chosen right from high school, “but I think it’s a good option to have.”
The Dripping Springs district, with 4,765 students, has been ahead of the curve. Since 2007, it has looked at ways to make its curriculum reflect student career interests The district will encourage students to master one or two endorsements. It has already developed a curriculum that provides up to six classes under each of the five endorsements, something that will take most other districts a few years to accomplish.
The district will provide advanced math courses as well as advanced placement or dual high school-college credit courses. Last year, the senior class of Dripping Springs High School had a 99 percent graduation rate. Seventy percent of the Class of 2011 went on to college. Dripping Springs students scored an average of 1625 on the SAT, 203 points higher than the state average. On the ACT, the average was 24.6, more than four points higher.
Jung said he thinks it’s beneficial, academically and financially, even for students who are headed for college to get exposure to different career interests early by taking advantage of endorsement classes.
“A lot of our kids will go onto college and don’t know what they want to do. So they end up switching majors or graduate late,” Jung added. “That could get very expensive.”