06/11/2013 04:43 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2013

Lower Graduation Requirements Won't Harm Texas Students? Prove It!

Texas lawmakers who recently weakened the state's high school graduation requirements in math and science are waving aside concerns that their move will water down standards or track low-income and minority students into the least challenging classes. They insist that standards will stay high for all students, even after they dial back requirements to three years of math and science and drop the requirement that all students take Algebra II.

But talk is cheap. Here's our challenge to those lawmakers: Prove it.

Why should the burden of proof fall on them? Because Texas lawmakers are contributing, perhaps unwittingly, to an information blackout on how well the state's students are really doing. For one, they have kept Texas out of the Common Core State Standards initiative, so Texas students won't be taking the new high school tests most other states are working together to develop. That's fair enough, but state leaders will not be able to see how their students stack up against students in other states.

Texas legislators also slashed the number of state high school exit exams, thereby neutering another measure of Texas high school students' performance. (The former requirement that students take fifteen exit exams was admittedly excessive, but the pendulum has now swung to the other extreme, with just five tests focusing primarily on ninth and tenth grade content.)

Yet even if Texas stands by these decisions, state leaders can still end the information blackout. For example:

  • Take part in a national math test of 12th graders. If the state gets enough of its high school seniors to take the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in math, state leaders will see how those seniors stack up against seniors in other states and across the nation as a whole. Many experts consider NAEP a "gold standard" of assessments, and individual students' results will remain forever anonymous while still helping state leaders measure the impact of the new policies.
  • Urge high schools to participate in an international test of student performance. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is offering U.S. high schools a test that will allow them to measure their 15-year-olds' performance against their peers in other countries. Schools that take part receive detailed, actionable information on where their students are falling behind.
  • Publish a high-profile study of what courses Texas students actually take in high school. Will the new graduation requirements encourage more students to eschew the college-prep courses that can put them on a path to higher-income jobs? Will low-income and minority students be least likely to take such courses?
  • Track high school students' success in college and careers while protecting those students' anonymity. If, over time, students who met the new graduation requirements succeed in college and careers, Texas state legislators can feel vindicated.

Texas has made a momentous decision to turn back on reforms that seemed to be yielding positive results. It's not enough to assert that all will go well. At the very least, the state should commit to reporting on the consequences, good or bad, of its big reversal.