IBM, Exxon decry Texas retreat on tougher school math standards

David Mildenberg (c) 2013, Bloomberg News

AUSTIN, Texas — When Texas in 2006 became the first state to require advanced algebra for high-school students, Gov. Rick Perry, R, said the policy would better prepare young people for success in higher education.

The strategy worked: By 2011, local students who took advanced algebra had higher average test scores, and fewer graduates needed to enroll in remedial math classes in college. Seventeen other states followed suit, and now about 75 percent of U.S. high school students completed Algebra II in 2012, up from less than half in 1986, said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based research group.

Now Texas is rolling back the requirement for Algebra II under pressure from lawmakers, some educators and business trade associations. They say advanced math skills aren’t needed for many jobs, including those in the booming drilling industry. The move is opposed by a coalition of corporate interests including IBM, Exxon Mobil and the Texas Association of Business.

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“What Texas is doing is absolutely counter the trend,” said Linda Gojak, president of the National Council of Mathematics Teachers and director of a math and science center at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio. “Not requiring Algebra II is a cop-out.”

Supporters of the rollback say businesses need more high- school graduates with vocational skills to take entry-level jobs in welding, cosmetology and other fields. The emphasis on preparing students for four-year colleges prompts too many teenagers to bypass jobs that don’t require a university diploma or to drop out of school, said Michael Meroney, an Austin lobbyist who represents the Jobs for Texas Coalition.

Twenty-two trade groups in the coalition, representing hundreds of Texas businesses, lobbied the state legislature to ease the math standard and cut back on end-of-course tests required for graduation. Perry signed the bill in June.

The governor, who supported the tighter algebra requirement seven years ago, said the changes struck “an appropriate balance between our needs for rigorous academic standards and the student’s need for flexibility.”

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Students are now required to complete four years of math, including Algebra II, though about 20 percent opt out of the class to earn a diploma that isn’t accepted by four-year colleges. Under the new rules, Texas will require three years of mathematics, with students who sign up for Algebra II earning a new “distinguished” diploma.

The Texas State Board of Education, an elected body that oversees school policies, approved the changes in the graduation requirements in November, with a final vote scheduled in January, said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the agency.

While the value of Algebra II is a decades-old debate, no better alternative has emerged to help teenagers learn logical thinking, said Richard Riley, who was U.S. Education Secretary from 1992 to 2001. Among the states requiring the course for graduation are Arkansas, Michigan and Tennessee.

“I’ve always favored Algebra II as a gateway into higher education and out of high school,” said Riley, a former governor who now practices law in Greenville, South Carolina.

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The boom in hydraulic fracturing that has contributed to increased oil and natural-gas production means that the industry faces shortages of welders, truckers and other workers who don’t need college degrees, said Meroney.

“Algebra II isn’t necessarily a good indicator of success in the future,” Meroney said. “How it became the panacea, I don’t know.”

The Texas retreat on math standards comes at a time when the U.S. appears to be falling behind on basic educational metrics. Math literacy of U.S. students ranked 26th among 34 members of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2012, comparable with Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Spain and Sweden, and the equivalent of at least two years of formal schooling behind top- ranked Shanghai, China.

Some major employers decry the decision to lower math standards.

IBM, with more than 6,000 workers in Austin, says the state should be strengthening math and science requirements to help erase a shortage of technology workers, said Sandy Dochen, the company’s corporate affairs manager in Texas.

“A kid from Muleshoe, Texas, who moves to Austin or someone from the Rio Grande Valley who moves to Dallas needs to be prepared for the world of work,” Dochen said. “In our haste to make life a little more bearable and to emphasize good teaching, let’s not get too soft on our competitiveness.”

Math scores of Texas students on the ACT college entrance exam improved over the past year, while the national average declined, according to an August 2013 report by the national testing service. Composite ACT scores were at an all-time high for blacks, whites and Hispanics, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, a state agency in Austin.

The report also said that 48 percent of Texas students were deemed ready for college algebra, compared with 44 percent nationally. The results came even as Texas ranked 49th among U.S. states in 2012-2013 on per-pupil spending for public schools, according to the National Education Association’s annual study on school spending released last December.

“What’s happening in Texas is an anomaly, there’s no question about it,” said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, based in Austin. “Too many kids will figure out how to take the minimal program, or be pushed into the program by administrators, and they will be prepared for minimum-wage jobs.”

Florida in April joined Texas in dumping the Algebra II requirement as it created separate diplomas for students seeking technical training and those who intend to go to college. Lawmakers had voted in 2010 to require Algebra II for all students.

“Texas has been so good about ratcheting up its standards and now the state has backed off,” said Susan Hull, director of mathematics and national initiatives at the University of Texas’s Dana Center, a research group. “Our fear is that other states will back off, following Texas’s lead.”