If early indications hold up, a storyline is beginning to develop out of Texas. It’s a narrative that is damning to our schools and one with serious national consequences.
Texas once led the nation in setting high standards and measuring schools. But if the state’s Legislature has its way, Texas will lead the charge against standards and tests. In fact, lawmakers will slam into reverse the work that has gone on for three decades to improve public education.
Other states should pay attention — and worry. This phenomenon is heading your way.
During President Barack Obama’s first term, nearly all states signed up for new, demanding national educational standards in math and English known as Common Core. Once those demands start taking effect, and states begin related testing, students will likely show serious deficits. The temptation will be to cave in on the higher standards, just like what is occurring in Texas.
It’s painful to write about the state’s backsliding because, for so long, we have drawn national praise for developing serious standards. These benchmarks show whether a student is on a track that prepares him or her for college or a good technical career. In fact, it wasn’t even necessary for Texas to join the Common Core movement, because the state’s own standards were strong.
Now the state is about to retreat from those standards — unless the business executives, higher education leaders and minority groups who recently have started speaking out can persuade enough legislators to resist the retreat.
School superintendents started complaining last year about Texas’ benchmarks after the state’s new STAAR tests revealed students were often far from meeting them. Their complaints got legislators’ attention.
Texas lawmakers are about to do something no previous Legislature has done since Texas started elevating academic rigor and holding schools accountable for their work back in the mid-1980s.
Ross Perot launched that work. And it continued through the governorships of Democrats Mark White and Ann Richards and Republicans George W. Bush and Rick Perry.
But that leadership could end. The Texas House will consider legislation that would make it easier for high school students to graduate without the skills they need for college or a middle-class job.
Legislation would do so in at least two ways. First, the bills would reduce the number of end-of-course exams that high school students must pass from 15 to five.
Some reductions are fine. But five is a major reduction.
Those five exams would test just ninth-grade courses in English, history, science and math. Only English would be tested beyond ninth grade — and that only in 10th grade. No longer would Texas test students in the more challenging courses that teach them the problem-solving skills the economy demands and rewards.
Their bills also would take the three high school degree plans the state now offers, two of which are college-oriented, and replace them with essentially one plan. It would be slightly more demanding than the least rigorous degree the state offers today.
These details are peculiar to Texas, but the storyline about the rebellion against higher standards and accountability is not. The Indiana Legislature, for example, is considering whether to step back from some Common Core standards.
States like Arizona, Colorado and Alabama are doing the same. And the web is filled with stories about teachers angry about the demands.
Common Core is not the only example of where pushback exists on standards and testing. The Obama administration has allowed numerous states to get out from underneath No Child Left Behind’s demands.
That landmark law, of course, has its roots in Texas. As president, Bush applied concepts largely developed here that involved states testing their students annually, using the results to assess their schools and making sure parents got the information. He and the law’s bipartisan backers of that legislation wanted to make sure no children were left behind, especially in minority neighborhoods.
Now Texas could lead another trend. Except this one would be away from equipping students for the world that awaits them. What a shame.
William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by MCT Information Services.
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