• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2015 •
From 2007 to 2011, all high school students in the state of Texas were required to take four years of English, four years of mathematics, four years of science, and four years of social studies to graduate from high school. This rigorous curriculum (known as the 4-by-4) was designed to prepare all students to enroll in four-year colleges in Texas and around the country.
But some Texas educators felt too challenged to fulfill such “lofty expectations” for all students. After all, some argued, not “all” students should consider college as a real option for themselves. Such assumptions of potential, we suspect, were directed at not one’s own children but rather at other peoples’ children.
Leaders from a sub-set of private sector companies also had no interest in having all students being academically prepared. They were more concerned with having access to a “skilled workforce,” which for some is code often used to rationalize a preference for emphasis on minimal skills needed to run the machines or do the unsophisticated work required in “my company.”
Some educators had low expectations for groups of students, and some short-sighted private sector leaders had no concern with the diminished opportunities that lead to students enrolling in a watered-down high school curriculum with fewer math, science and social studies requirements. Working in tandem, these two forces orchestrated major revisions to the Texas 4-by-4 standards.
In 2013, Texas’ political leadership chose to modify the Texas strong 4-by-4 college readiness curriculum and put in its place a thinly-veiled new system of student tracking. This new system created different “paths” to graduation that were achieved by changing the course combinations different sub-groups of high school students would need to take in order to graduate.
The changes were accompanied by the creation of vague yet alluring labels for the new curriculum tracks (called “endorsements”): STEM, business and industry, arts and humanities, public service, and multidisciplinary studies. The varying paths were sold as equivalent and promised to lead all students to being college ready (a concept that also was watered down to mean that all students would be prepared to enroll in a two-year college, rather than a four-year college, without needing remedial courses).
The reality is that most of the new tracks require significantly fewer advanced math and science courses. Students who pursue the distinguished level of achievement at least must take Algebra II, which is needed for entrance into a four-year college program. Since even within the tracks there are ways to steer students either toward or away from college, students and families must be vigilant.
Schools were given the task of providing guidance to students and parents on these new curriculum plans. The law, as adopted, requires schools to review graduation plans with incoming ninth graders and their parents and to ensure that parents sign their child’s plan.
Specifically, the law states: “A principal of a high school shall designate a school counselor or school administrator to review personal graduation plan options with each student entering grade nine together with that student’s parent or guardian. The personal graduation plan options reviewed must include the distinguished level of achievement… and the endorsements… Before the conclusion of the school year, the student and the student’s parent or guardian must confirm and sign a personal graduation plan for the student.”
Schools also are required to explain the college-related implications of the revised curriculum requirements with signage, detailed explanations, and written notifications in “plain language.”
On this, the law states: “The board of trustees of a school district and the governing body of each open-enrollment charter school that provides a high school shall require each high school in the district or provided by the charter school, as applicable, to post appropriate signs in each counselor’s office, in each principal’s office, and in each administrative building indicating the substance of Section 51.803 regarding automatic college admission (Top Ten Percent Plan) and stating the curriculum requirements for financial aid authorized under Title 3. To assist in the dissemination of that [this] information, the [school] district or charter school shall:
- require that each high school counselor and class advisor be provided a detailed explanation of the substance of Section 51.803 and the curriculum requirements for financial aid authorized under Title 3;
- provide each district or school student, at the time the student first registers for one or more classes required for high school graduation, with a written notification, including a detailed explanation in plain language, of the substance of Section 51.803, the curriculum requirements for financial aid authorized under Title 3, and the benefits of completing the requirements for that automatic admission and financial aid.”
What the state leaders did not provide were uniform guidelines on the specific new information to be provided or in what form or language. Schools were only provided minimal additional resources to deal with all the new requirements associated with advising students and parents.
The result has been a hodgepodge of local school-developed informational materials, inconsistent understanding among middle school and high school staff of what the new curriculum tracks involve, and a lag in data on how the curriculum changes are impacting courses students are now taking and, later, data on how the modified curriculum is impacting enrollment in colleges and universities.
A recent survey of parents in a large number of South Texas communities reveals that nine out of 10 parents still have very little or no information on the content or implications of the new curriculum track options incorporated into the new law. (See story in the June-July issue of the IDRA Newsletter). We suspect that a similar poll of parents around the state would produce similar numbers.
Steps for Schools
Given what we know of the challenges schools have historically faced in communication with and engaging parents – let alone parents of middle and high school students – it is clear that better communication and engagement strategies are needed to ensure all students are on paths to be rigorously prepared for college. Our research on effectively engaging parents of minority and low-income students suggests that those efforts need to consider the following.
- Make the 4-by-4 curriculum the default for all students.
- Engage with parents from the beginning of the school year rather than waiting for spring enrollment or waiting to respond to issues that arise.
- Have summary materials on the different curriculum endorsements available at middle schools and high schools with clear information on the impact of those routes on career preparation and on chances for enrolling in a four-year college.
- Provide sufficient time for students and their parents to consider the graduation requirements and the implications of the various endorsement tracks, which may well turn out to be life-altering options facing students as young as 13 and 14 years of age.
- Expand the pools of staff who are advising students on the various curriculum tracks and move away from counselor-student focused approaches that result in 300, 400 and in some cases 500 students per counselor.
- Document, summarize and review the impact of the shift away from the standard 4-by-4 curriculum on the numbers of students selecting each endorsement track to ensure that no disproportionate concentrations in vocational paths compared to college prep paths.
- Monitor the impact of the new curriculum on the number of students enrolling in two- and four-year colleges and set triggers that alert the school to major shifts in post-secondary enrollments.
Though it is too soon to have data on the impact of the new curriculum tracking system, similar schemes in the past in Texas and elsewhere had dismal results. In the meantime, information is needed on how middle and high schools are handling the expanded requirements that they inform students and parents about the curriculum endorsement selection process and how this is impacting the decisions being made. It is imperative that schools and communities monitor this new process closely and are ready to take appropriate action if unintended concentrations and drops in college enrollment are identified as early by-products of the new tracking scheme.
Texas Legislature, House Bill 5 (2013). Sec. 28.026. Notice of Requirements for Automatic College Admission and Financial Aid.
IDRA. Tracking, Endorsements and Differentiated Diplomas – When ‘Different’ Really is Less – A Post Session Update, IDRA Policy Note (San Antonio, Texas: IDRA, October 2013).
Cortez, A. “Texas Endorsement System Threatens to Track Poor and Minority Students – IDRA Calls on Texas State Board of Education to Ensure All Students Have Access to High Quality Curriculum,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: IDRA, November-December, 2013).
Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is director of policy at IDRA. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2015, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2015 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]