At Issue: Graduation Standards, Teacher Shortages

The Texas Senate’s committees on education and higher education met jointly March 29 to look at the effects of recent changes in state graduation requirements and options for addressing teacher shortages in fields such as bilingual and special education.

At the urging of parents, educators, and a concerned public at large, the Texas legislature has scaled back the number of standardized state exams required for graduation and prospectively has capped at 55 percent the portion of a school’s accountability rating based on state exams.  Defenders of test-driven accountability are criticizing educational outcomes since the scaling back of state testing began.

But the joint hearing of the two Senate committees made clear that such complaints are premature. The first group of students to graduate entirely under the new graduation standards and pathways will be the Class of 2018, as Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath noted. And concerns about the academic rigor of courses in high school predated the 2013 establishment of the new standards.

Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes particularly laments the 2013 removal of Algebra II as a requirement for graduation. Dr. Paredes says the state was right to equate passing a standardized state exam on Algebra II with college readiness. But he also contends that the state’s standards of college and career readiness are overdue for revision.

Instead of relying solely on standardized testing to gauge readiness, some educators have pointed to the rise in the number of college credits earned by students still in high school as perhaps the best evidence that students are indeed capable of performing satisfactorily at the college level. But Dr. Paredes remains unconvinced, suggesting that the academic rigor of dual-credit courses in high school needs to be examined. He argued for the use of the Texas Success Initiative exam, developed to assess the knowledge and skills of incoming college students, as a preferred gauge of performance.

Perhaps the most troubling report on the implementation of the 2013 system of new graduation pathways came from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). Effective navigation of the many graduation options for students requires early and solid information about the long-term implications for college access and career choices. But MALDEF reported that 85 percent of parents surveyed in the Rio Grande Valley said they had little or no knowledge of the state’s graduation plans. This finding clearly is tied to the inadequate number of counselors available to apprise students and their parents of their options.

Shortages of teachers in key fields such as bilingual and special education and math and science also make it harder to provide students statewide with equitable access to the full array of educational offerings needed to make the state’s graduation options a reality. This problem has no single solution. Solving it will require a recommitment by the state to rewarding teachers with the compensation, resources, and respect they deserve.

One part of that solution was highlighted in March 29 testimony by Texas AFT legislative counsel Patty Quinzi, who called for sharply increased funding for the state’s program of tuition exemptions for educational aides who pursue a bachelor’s degree and teacher certification in a shortage field. Quinzi noted that the highly successful program promotes two important state goals, because recruiting teachers from among paraprofessionals yields more teachers from ethnic and language minorities and more teachers prepared to work long-term—and succeed—in underserved communities. Quinzi’s testimony was echoed by other witnesses and was favorably received by the Senate committee members.

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