States Aren’t So Sure Their High Schoolers Should Go to College

Education departments around the country are rolling back graduation requirements in a bid to aid students who aren’t headed to university. But they risk marginalizing minorities.

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 23: Young students attend the American Heart Association's Teaching Garden Plant Day at Moss Haven Elementary School on March 23, 2012 in Dallas, Texas. 
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Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
Nov. 21, 2013, 4 p.m.

Just sev­en years ago, the Texas Le­gis­lature man­dated that all high school­ers pass two al­gebra courses and geo­metry to gradu­ate. This sum­mer, the state re­versed course, eas­ing its strict math, sci­ence, and so­cial-stud­ies re­quire­ments to free up class time for job train­ing.

Texas le­gis­lat­ors want to cre­ate a more flex­ible sys­tem that helps stu­dents who aren’t headed to four-year col­leges enter the work­force. And it’s not just Texas. State le­gis­latures na­tion­wide are en­act­ing laws to pro­mote ca­reer and tech­nic­al edu­ca­tion and work­force train­ing in high school.

But that ap­proach car­ries risks. While it’s true that not all stu­dents will go on to col­lege, pulling back on col­lege pre­par­at­ory course­work has to be handled care­fully in a state like Texas, with its hun­dreds of thou­sands of low-in­come and minor­ity stu­dents. They’re the stu­dents who would be­ne­fit from col­lege the most — and who need the most help get­ting there.

New laws in Texas, as well as in Flor­ida, de-em­phas­ize Al­gebra 2, the math class re­quired for ad­mis­sion to four-year col­leges and place­ment in­to col­lege-level math at two-year in­sti­tu­tions. Know­ledge of Al­gebra 2 is con­sidered an in­dic­at­or of col­lege read­i­ness un­der the Com­mon Core stand­ards, which have been ad­op­ted by 45 states, in­clud­ing Flor­ida.

More than half of pub­lic-school stu­dents in both states are non­white. Fifty per­cent of Texas stu­dents and 56 per­cent of Flor­ida stu­dents qual­i­fy for fed­er­ally sub­sid­ized lunches. It’s par­tic­u­larly im­port­ant that low-in­come, His­pan­ic, and Afric­an-Amer­ic­an stu­dents leave high school qual­i­fied to fur­ther their edu­ca­tion — even if they don’t plan on do­ing so right away. A col­lege de­gree is the most im­port­ant driver of so­cial mo­bil­ity. By 2020, 65 per­cent of all jobs will re­quire some kind of post­sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion, ac­cord­ing to the Geor­getown Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force.

Prac­tic­ally speak­ing, Texas’s earli­er col­lege-prep course­work re­com­mend­a­tions didn’t fit real­ity. Des­pite the high bar, only about half of the state’s high school gradu­ates im­me­di­ately headed off to col­lege of any kind. “We wanted to give stu­dents and par­ents more flex­ib­il­ity, to not only be col­lege-pre­pared — which I think we’re do­ing a pretty good job of — but per­haps to ex­pand that pre­par­a­tion to folks who may not be go­ing to col­lege,” Rep. Jim­mie Don Ay­cock, a Re­pub­lic­an who chairs the Texas House’s Pub­lic Edu­ca­tion Com­mit­tee, says of the re­vi­sion. The goal isn’t to dumb down the cur­riculum, he says, but to let kids pur­sue a path that might not have been open to them be­fore. The state’s edu­ca­tion-ac­count­ab­il­ity sys­tem still re­wards schools when stu­dents demon­strate col­lege read­i­ness.

Rather than a re­com­men­ded four years each of math, sci­ence, and so­cial stud­ies, Texas stu­dents now need just three cred­its in each and must take five end-of-course tests rather than 15. Stu­dents will be able to earn “en­dorse­ments” in areas such as pub­lic ser­vice, arts and hu­man­it­ies, and busi­ness and in­dustry. The State Board of Edu­ca­tion is cur­rently de­bat­ing which en­dorse­ments will re­quire Al­gebra 2.

Flor­ida’s new law rolls back the re­quire­ment (signed in­to law in 2010) that stu­dents take Al­gebra 2 and either chem­istry or phys­ics and al­lows some in­dustry-fo­cused courses to sat­is­fy sub­ject-area re­quire­ments. Stu­dents who earn ad­vanced aca­dem­ic cred­its will re­ceive a “schol­ar” des­ig­na­tion on their dip­lo­mas, while stu­dents who earn one or more in­dustry cer­ti­fic­a­tions will earn a “mer­it” des­ig­na­tion.

Over the past dec­ade, states pushed for more ad­vanced aca­dem­ics — more poly­no­mi­al equa­tions! — but the rising cost of col­lege, the du­bi­ous re­turn on in­vest­ment from a lib­er­al-arts de­gree, and the com­pet­it­ive salar­ies earned by the hold­ers of tech­nic­al two-year de­grees have caused many states to re­think their policies. The 16 oth­er states that re­quire Al­gebra 2 are stay­ing the course for now, but that could change when le­gis­latures re­con­vene next year.

Set­ting up a non­col­lege track doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily have to di­vert stu­dents from post­sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion. High school pro­grams aligned to in­dustry of­ten pre­pare stu­dents for an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree. Stu­dents who fill entry-level jobs in health care and oth­er sec­tors are ex­pec­ted to go back to school to ad­vance their ca­reers.

And it’s worth de­bat­ing, too, wheth­er Al­gebra 2 should be the gate­way course for col­lege ad­mis­sion. Al­though tak­ing ad­vanced high school math has been linked to col­lege and ca­reer suc­cess, it’s un­clear if the con­nec­tion is caus­al. A se­quence of math courses that lay the ground­work for cal­cu­lus has little rel­ev­ance in most ca­reers, let alone in the lib­er­al arts.

Still, the ad­vant­age of state edu­ca­tion­al re­quire­ments that re­quire ad­vanced aca­dem­ics is that they clearly com­mu­nic­ate what top col­leges want. “There may have been a mis­per­cep­tion that by re­quir­ing this course se­quence in math, people were say­ing that all stu­dents had to go to col­lege, and that was nev­er the case,” says Jen­nifer Dounay Zinth, seni­or policy ana­lyst at the Edu­ca­tion Com­mis­sion of the States.

Na­tion­wide, dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­bers of af­flu­ent white stu­dents head to se­lect­ive four-year col­leges, while most low-in­come, minor­ity stu­dents go to two-year col­leges, open-ac­cess in­sti­tu­tions, or no col­lege at all. In­form­a­tion dis­par­it­ies are at least part of the prob­lem. A 2003 Stan­ford Uni­versity study of six states found that less than 12 per­cent of high school stu­dents were aware of course re­quire­ments for their loc­al uni­versit­ies. In fact, simply mail­ing high-achiev­ing low-in­come stu­dents more col­lege-en­roll­ment in­form­a­tion in­creased the num­ber of ap­plic­a­tions those stu­dents sent to se­lect­ive col­leges, re­search­ers at Stan­ford and the Uni­versity of Vir­gin­ia re­cently found.

So the ques­tion is far from settled wheth­er states are prop­erly serving their minor­ity stu­dents by lower­ing aca­dem­ic re­quire­ments. The ad­ded flex­ib­il­ity may give some high schools an ex­cuse to mar­gin­al­ize their stu­dents by not pre­par­ing them for col­lege. And, by do­ing so, not pre­par­ing them for a job mar­ket that re­wards post­sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion.

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