By Will Weissert
AUSTIN — The Texas Board of Education on Wednesday voted again to drop algebra II as a requirement for high school graduation as the members began to finalize an academic curriculum overhaul that could reshape public classrooms statewide.
Eliminating the algebra II mandate for many students was part of a sweeping law approved overwhelmingly in May by the state Legislature that scrapped many course requirements in advanced math and science while cutting the number of standardized tests high schoolers must pass from 15 to five.
The changes were meant to give students more flexibility to focus on career and vocational training — not just college prep courses — but critics accuse Texas of dumbing-down its graduation standards.
The board's 10 Republicans and five Democrats cast a similar vote in November and must still provide final approval to the new curriculum standards on Friday. Discussions on last-minute changes will continue until then, and large modifications are still possible.
The new graduation rules take effect in September.
Just eight years ago, Texas became the first state to require that most of its high school students pass algebra II, and nearly 20 states have since followed suit. Now Texas is bucking the trend it started.
Board member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, said in an interview that the skills learned in algebra II are vital for the SAT and ACT college entry exams.
He said he hoped to include an "applied algebra" course among those classes that students pursuing a variety of high school diploma plans could take, suggesting it would teach algebra skills in real-world situations such as accounting.
"I don't want to water down the curriculum. I want there to be rigor there," Mercer said. "But I want it to have things (students) can use."
The board's latest vote didn't include an applied algebra course, but its members delayed action on key portions of the new curriculum, meaning there is still time to include it before final approval Friday.
Many experts say algebra II is a key prerequisite for success both in college and life beyond. But supporters of the new law noted that even the curriculum standards being replaced had allowed students to forgo the current requirement by earning a high school diploma on the minimum plan — and about 20 percent of young Texans did so.
Meanwhile, a coalition of industry and trade groups argued that plenty of high-paying jobs are available without a college degree, but that algebra II is so difficult that it was forcing many students to drop out before finishing high school.
Algebra II would still be required of students who want "distinguished" high school diplomas that allow them to qualify for automatic admission to any state public university in Texas. It will also be mandated for those who choose coursework focusing on science, technology, engineering and math.
But the algebra II requirement would no longer exist for students who choose diploma paths focusing on arts and humanities, business and industry, multidisciplinary studies or public service, unless a change Friday means it lives on in a hybrid course such as the one backed by Mercer.
The new rules also would let students earn "foundation" diplomas that don't include higher math or science requirements and don't focus on a particular discipline.
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