State Board of Education pulls back on Algebra 2

By Joshua Fechter, Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau | November 21, 2013

AUSTIN — Facing pressure from state legislators, a committee of the State Board of Education voted 14-1 on Thursday evening to change a board proposal that would have required most high school students to take Algebra 2 to graduate.

Instead of requiring students who choose to enroll in one of five enrichment areas, or “endorsements,” to take the math course to graduate, the board amended the proposal to require only students who specialize in science and math to take the course.

The panel made the change with little fanfare as it worked through a series of votes on graduation requirements, which sharply contrasted with the hours of testimony from education advocates and officials who debated it at a hearing Wednesday.

Board members unanimously approved the entire graduation package and began to discuss textbooks around 10 p.m., working toward a preliminary vote to adopt biology instructional materials.

Critics of the board's religious conservatives have noted that their numbers have declined in recent years and say they are less likely to succeed in efforts to get greater classroom questioning of the theory of evolution. A final vote on the textbooks is set for Friday.

Textbook reviewers listed a number of “factual errors” in a biology textbook published by Pearson Education, Inc., many of them dealing with the book's assessment of the age of the Earth and certain components of evolution. Board vice chair Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, took issue with the time at which the board was taking up the measure.

As of 10:30 p.m., the board had not voted on the recommendations. “To plot this at the 11th hour and say a book that is being used, as I understand it, in over half of the classrooms in the United States is now on the verge of 15 laypeople deciding finite and specific and specialized scientific information is hardly the best way to review a book for 5 million kids,” Ratliff said.

Under the Algebra 2 amendment to the graduation rules, students enrolled in diploma plans focused on business and industry, public services, multidisciplinary studies and the arts would not be required to take the course.

Marty Rowley, R-Amarillo, said this change would bring the board's plan more in line with the intent of House Bill 5, which the Legislature passed unanimously this year to overhaul graduation standards and provide flexibility for students. He said the science and math endorsement was a “different creature” from the others and depends on a more intensive focus on skills obtained in Algebra 2.

The plan must clear another vote by the full board on Friday and a final vote in January to take effect. The original plan, which would have required students enrolled in all five endorsements to take Algebra 2, drew ire from key state lawmakers who said it went against the intent of House Bill 5.

The bill's authors said it was designed to allow more flexibility for students, but it left some decisions on advanced courses up to the elected 15-member state board. State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston and the Senate education chair, and Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, his House counterpart, asked board members Wednesday to vote against the proposal and let school districts decide whether to require Algebra 2 for each endorsement.

That assessment hasn't sat well with advocates who tout advantages the math course could give students. Philip Uri Treisman, director of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, urged board members Thursday to require Algebra 2 for all endorsements.

Treisman said the math course is critical for students to meet college and career readiness standards, be eligible for automatic admission to public universities under the state's “top 10 percent” law, have sufficient mathematical knowledge to avoid remediation courses upon entering college and keep their career options open. The board also eliminated speech as a requirement for students under the minimum, or “foundation,” diploma plan.


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