Industry group pressures trend-setting Texas to drop algebra II requirement despite success

The first state to require high school students to take algebra II has now abandoned the policy.

Supporters say that mandating fewer courses will allow students to focus on vocational training for high-paying jobs that don’t require college degrees.

But critics say Texas, which is closely watched for education policy, has watered down its standards even as test scores and graduation rates have steadily improved, along with college entrance exam scores, since the more challenging curriculum was adopted in 2006.

"Algebra II is a really, really powerful predictive value on whether kids go to college, but it goes on and on after that: more likely to have a full-time job, have a job with benefits, be healthier," said Patte Barth, director of the Center for Public Education, told the Associated Press. "It's not just for the college bound."

Florida has also dropped the algebra II requirement mandated by 16 other states and the District of Columbia. Minnesota and Connecticut will soon require students to take the course.

However, Florida is among 45 states that are adopting Common Core standards that require students to master some skills taught in algebra II, while Texas is not.

Texas often serves as a model for education policy, including its heavy reliance of standardized testing that became a model for the federal No Child Left Behind law, and its textbook market is so large that edits made for its classroom sometimes end up in other states’ textbooks.

"It's funny that the banner-turning state would be backing off not so many years later," said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a policy analyst at Education Commission of the States.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the change in May over the objections of the state’s higher education commissioner, Raymond Paredes.

The change came under strong pressure from Jobs for Texas, a coalition of 22 industry trade groups that argued the state’s curriculum did not meet the needs of the modern workforce.

"A lot of experts believe that problem solving is not exclusively learned in algebra II," coalition spokesman Mike Meroney told the Associated Press. "It's a good healthy debate, but it shouldn't be a panacea."

Students had been allowed to avoid algebra II by earning a “minimum diploma,” and about 20 percent of students did so.

Algebra II will still be required for honors diplomas, which ensure automatic admission to Texas public universities, and for diplomas focusing on science, technology, engineering and math courses.

Local school districts may still require algebra II.

[Image: A portrait of an Hispanic college student studying in the library on Shutterstock]