Texas: Big, Proud…and Wimpy?

It was one thing—and a legitimate thing—for Texas to opt out of the new Common Core academic standards for English language arts and math that forty-five other states have embraced. Although the rigorous and generally admirable Common Core is the work of states themselves, Governor Perry and then-commissioner Robert Scott viewed it as federally inspired mischief and an assault on the educational sovereignty of the Republic of Texas. They chose instead to adhere to the Lone Star State’s own expectations for what schools must teach and children should learn

Well and good—because at the time of those decisions (and still today), Texas could boast strong standards in English language arts; so-so ones in math; solid assessments; and a forceful, results-based accountability system, including the tough part that state after state (including top-scoring Massachusetts) has shown to be key to actual achievement gains: requiring kids to pass the tests and meet the standards in order to graduate.

Then and now, Texas has a “default” high school curriculum designed to prepare students for college-level work and modern careers—the kind with futures—as well as a comprehensive set of end-of-course exams that they must pass en route to those diplomas. Taken seriously and implemented properly (including elementary and middle schools that prepare youngsters for these high school rigors), Texas has embarked on an education regimen that will truly deliver the results that a twenty-first century economy requires and that individuals need in order to afford themselves a solid shot at good jobs and rewarding careers.

All of which will start to unravel—and return Texas to a pre-reform era of educational mediocrity—if the legislature sends the governor the ill-conceived rollback measure that cleared the House last week.

Instead of today’s “4 x 4” default curriculum for high school students (four years each of English, math, science, and social studies), the norm for Texas teens would become an easier “foundation diploma” with thirteen required courses.

On its face, that may look like a modest rollback. What’s more insidious is that, by also scrapping ten of the state’s fifteen “end of course” exams, including those in almost all the tougher courses, Texas essentially forfeits uniform academic expectations and returns to the days when individual districts, schools, and teachers decided which students get diploma credit for which classes. That means standards will (again) vary widely from place to place and neither employers nor colleges will be sure which applicants truly possess what knowledge and skills. High school transcripts will be inscrutable and diplomas ambiguous. And since district superintendents will be tempted to offer only the courses that the state mandates, lots of young Texans—most of them likely poor or minority—will be left with no access to classes that would do the most to propel them to success in higher education and beyond.

No wonder the state’s major employers and university leaders oppose this measure. If the House version makes it into law, it will be because some don’t think the state’s sons and daughters can reach high standards. In the name of “local control,” Texas is stepping back toward a system that was inequitable, capricious, and inadequate.

Yes, fifteen end-of-course exams may have been too many. But five is too few, especially in a state that has chosen to shun the comparable assessments into which most of the country is heading. Without standard measuring sticks, schools and districts are apt (there’s much evidence on this, including a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics) to put rigorous-sounding labels on easy courses—in essence, faking it. Statewide end-of-course exams are the best way to discourage this.

Much recent debate in Texas has focused on whether every high school student needs to pass “advanced algebra” en route to a diploma. The short answer is that this is nearly always necessary in order to enroll in college-level math without remediation. No, not every college student needs to take more math and not every high school student aspires to college. Indeed, the nationwide “college for everybody” push has gone too far, particularly if what’s meant is a classic four-year liberal-arts degree. But in today’s economy, even young people headed for industry need plenty of serious math. It’s irresponsible not to give all of them such career options—and irresponsible also to suppose that sixteen-year-olds are in the best position to make lifetime decisions that they may later regret.

Yes, they—with the assent of parent and guidance counselor—should be able to opt out of such courses. But the default should assume that everyone otherwise takes them. And the state’s assessment system should provide evidence that the courses are real, not fancy titles affixed to simple content that might be easy to pass in the short run but won’t get credit from the real world in the long run.

The bill that cleared the House the other day did make one improvement: The state’s accountability system will give individual schools parent-friendly letter grades from A to F rather than using complex terminology to designate a school’s status. And academic achievement will continue to figure in those designations. The problem is that bobtailing the assessment system means far less information will be available by which to determine how much achievement is actually occurring.

I hope, for the sake of millions of school-kids in our second-most-populous state—and for that state’s future—that the legislature sets this right before it reaches Governor Perry’s desk. So many worthy education reforms are in play in Austin today—reforms that add up, if wisdom prevails, to a needed comprehensive overhaul of Texas K–12 education—that it would be a particular pity if the quality standards that should undergird everything else are themselves badly weakened.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

A shorter version of this piece appeared in the Houston Chronicle.

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