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Kati Haycock Headshot

If It Walks Like a Duck...

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As Texas lawmakers continue to debate measures to roll back graduation requirements for the state's high school students, I am just plain amazed at their willingness to stretch the truth about this education "reform" measure.

One state senator, Dan Patrick, facing pressure from state and national civil rights organizations for creating a lower level path to graduation that will almost inevitably become a dumping ground for many low-income and minority students, denies he is doing anything of the sort. "We are not reducing rigor in the 4 by 4," he says. "We are creating flexibility [emphasis added] so a student can follow their passion and interest."

Unfortunately, that "flexibility" will mean watered down math and science courses for many Texas students, at a time when the skills learned in advanced courses matter more to later earnings and life chances than ever before. If that's not lowered standards, I don't know what is.

Other state senators -- this time, representatives from both sides of the aisle -- have announced an amendment they say will "fix" the weaknesses in the measure (HB 5) already passed by the House. But that "fix" is an illusion. It allows districts to design their own math and science courses, substituting these for state-defined courses as long as they have the imprimatur of a local college. Unfortunately, that is hardly a guarantee of rigor. For years, Texas has been considered the wild west of "concurrent enrollment," whereby greedy colleges award college credit for courses students take in high school practically without regard to the content of those courses or the qualifications of their teachers. That trend threatens to accelerate if the amendment passes.

What's happening now in Texas is an appalling retreat from the state's past role as a leader in K-12 education. Not only was Texas the first state in the country to rate schools on the performance of all groups of children, curtailing the longtime practice of sweeping underachievement under the rug, but it was also the first state to make the college prep curriculum the default course of study for all students.

Texas still has a long way to go. Roughly one in five graduates have been "opted out" of the current requirements into a lower level course of study. And even the more than 80 percent of graduates who do complete the so-called "Recommended Curriculum" aren't all ready for college-level work at the end. That said, fears that the requirements would increase the number of dropouts have proved wrong: Dropout rates decreased even as graduation requirements rose. Moreover, the numbers were getting even better every year.

So why the U-turn in the opposite direction?

"Because parents are outraged about the massive increase in testing approved by an earlier group of legislators in 2007," say the lawmakers.

Yes, in fact, many were. But while the parent group Texans for Meaningful Student Assessment created noise in the background, the real push for the changes in graduation requirements came from the education establishment.

Clearly, the reintroduction of end-of-course testing created a big, new challenge for the establishment in many districts. Not only were they going to have to place even poor Hispanic and black students in courses like Algebra II and Chemistry; they were actually going to have to teach them the normal content of those courses. So, instead of buckling down to do just that, district leaders descended on the state capitol for relief.

They could, of course, have proposed a sensible middle ground: a smaller number of course-specific exams, coupled with lower stakes for students -- as North Carolina does, for example. But instead, they convinced state lawmakers not just to throw out two-thirds of the tests, but also to chip away at those annoying graduation requirements, as well.

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck... chances are it is a duck. There's no way around it. And thousands of Texas young people will pay the price. Here's hoping the Senate will come to its senses later this week, and preserve current graduation requirements, even as they agree on a more manageable number of exams.

If they don't, I'll be doing what I never thought I would do in a million years: humbling myself in front of Gov. Rick Perry. I'll be begging him, as will others in the civil rights community, to dump this attempt to turn back the clock of progress into the dustbin where it belongs.