Nov. 15, 2006, 12:26PM
Will more math, science classes add up?
State's assignment: Prepare seniors for college but keep curriculum flexible
By JANET ELLIOTT
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN — Pre-calculus and physics. Those two classes strike terror in the hearts of many high school students, though both can be avoided by college-bound youths. But that could change as state education policymakers implement a new rule requiring students on the recommended graduation plan to take a fourth year of math and science.
A battle about the rigor of the courses that will count toward the so-called "4-by-4" curriculum rages anew at today's State Board of Education meeting.
In September, the board gave a tentative nod to a plan that would allow students to choose from a variety of courses, including some lower-level math and science classes, for their fourth credit. But many in the business community and some concerned parents are stepping up pressure on the board to require more-difficult courses for seniors.
About 60 school superintendents, educators, business leaders and parents have signed up to address the board, which has been struggling since July to implement the Legislature's mandate. The board must make a decision by Friday.
"A lot of key occupations like engineering and nursing are suffering because we've taken our eye off the prize and watered down the curriculum so much that it builds very little skills in students by the time they've graduated from high school," said George Edwards Jr., a former trustee of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD who favors requiring challenging courses such as physics and pre-calculus.
Edwards, a certified public accountant with Exxon Mobil Corp., represents the 160-member Cy-Fair Minority Parents Association in his demand for tougher standards. That position is at odds with district Superintendent David Anthony and others who want more flexibility in course selection.
Many in the education community say it will be difficult to find qualified teachers for high-level math and science. And they worry that too-tough requirements will drive students to opt out of the recommended graduation plan for a minimum plan that might not prepare them for college.
About two-thirds of Texas students follow the recommended diploma track, which the Legislature has designated as the default graduation plan. Students must have their parents' permission to opt for the minimum plan, which requires three years of math and two of science.
The board wants to increase the number of credits required for graduation from 24 to 26 so the extra math and science won't cut out electives. The new recommended plan will apply to students entering high school next year.
John Folks, superintendent of Northside ISD in San Antonio, hopes that the State Board will let districts count a variety of math and science courses for the fourth year.
"The bottom line is, kids have different skills, different abilities, different interests," said Folks, a former math teacher. "We don't need to put every kid in the same box."
Board member David Bradley, R-Beaumont, said he thinks the 15-member elected board will go with the tougher standards. He said something has to be done because half of entering college freshmen require remedial instruction in math or English.
"We don't want seniors taking fluff courses because when they enter college, they're behind," he said.
Students on the recommended plan now take algebra 1, geometry and algebra 2.
Bradley favors limiting the fourth year of math to a course that requires algebra 2 as a prerequisite. There are only a few such classes now available, including pre-calculus and advanced placement statistics.
Terri Leo, a Republican board member from Spring, plans to propose a two-track recommended plan that would allow students who are interested in math and science to take the most-challenging courses. Those who are inclined toward liberal arts could choose from a variety of math and science courses for their additional credit.
"It satisfies the Legislature's demand for more rigor as well as school districts' need for flexibility," she said.
On the science side, students now need three credits, generally biology, chemistry and either physics or an integrated chemistry and physics course called IPC. Leo wants to phase out IPC, which is a middle-school-level course, and require the fourth-year credit to be physics or another lab-based science.
Sarah Winkler, vice president of the Alief ISD's Board of Trustees, said she is concerned that the new curriculum could crowd out vocational and technology internships in hotels, businesses and hospitals that the district has developed. Students can get college credit at Houston Community College and the University of Houston under the program.
"I'd hate to see those doors close," she said.