November 21, 2009
By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – State Board of Education members moved Friday to close a loophole that would have allowed high school students to take up to seven credits – or 14 semester courses – in athletics and physical education to meet graduation requirements.
Instead, under the board decision, students will be able to take up to four credits in PE and PE substitutes, such as football, dance or cheerleading. That is still double the number that has been allowed in previous years.
A law approved by the Legislature this year increased the number of electives students can take in high school, but it put few restrictions on what classes can be taken as electives.
That opened the door to students taking more than a fourth of the 26 credits required for graduation in PE and PE substitutes.
"It's a loophole that needs to be closed," said board member Geraldine Miller, R-Dallas, who had predicted that the new law would provide a "real temptation" for students to game the system by loading up on PE classes and sports. "Seven credits for PE courses is way too many and would lead to abuses in the system."
The Legislature approved the new graduation requirements as part of a massive school accountability bill. The new rules were intended to give students more course options in preparing for college or post-secondary training programs.
"The Legislature had heard for years that they needed more flexibility in the Recommended High School Program, so they gave more flexibility and it wound up having unintended consequences," said state Education Commissioner Robert Scott, who noted students will still be able to count more PE and PE substitute courses toward graduation than in the past.
Students have been limited to two credits in PE during their four years in high school.
For the past several months, education board members have been studying a plan backed by Texas High School Coaches Association to allow student athletes to get twice as much credit toward graduation for playing football, baseball, basketball and other sports. The plan called for allowing four years of sports to count toward graduation instead of the current maximum of two years, or two credits.
The new law authorizing more electives enabled the board to essentially implement the high school coaches' proposal while shutting off the possibility of students getting more than four credits in sports.
"I appreciate all that athletics does for kids. It's really important," said board member Don McLeroy, R-College Station, who strongly backed the coaches' proposal. "The argument for counting four years of athletics toward graduation is pretty persuasive now that the state" requires four years of math, science, English and social studies to graduate.
Noting that many athletes are among the best students at their schools, McLeroy added, "Coaches have a good impact on the kids they work with."
Under another new provision affecting PE, all students will now be required to take a minimum of one credit – or two semesters – in physical education. Previously, the minimum was 1.5 credits.
Board members also deleted requirements for two semesters of computer technology and a semester of health education for students who follow the "minimum" or "distinguished achievement" graduation plans. The courses had already been eliminated by the Legislature for students in the "recommended" plan, which most students follow, but lawmakers did not change the other two plans.
The goal is to give all students more electives. Most can now take six credits of elective courses, although one semester of speech – either "communication applications" or "professional communications" – counts.
While the new law was aimed at incoming freshmen this year, the commissioner decided to extend the new course options to all high school students this summer. He noted that the measure passed both the House and Senate with two-thirds majorities, the threshold for laws to take immediate effect.
The decision bothered many school district officials, and many adopted policies that keep health or computer technology as locally required courses.
"It's a significant messaging problem in school districts," Scott said. "The law says students are not required to take health education and yet some school districts are still requiring them to take it."
However, he added, it is the prerogative of local districts to require certain courses for students to graduate beyond what the state requires. School superintendents said they had already hired teachers and planned course schedules based on the required health and computer technology classes – and it would have been disruptive to drop those classes this school year.
In addition, some districts want to maintain health education as a required course, citing its importance to the well-being of their students.
The state's recommended high school program, which most students follow:
Social studies 4
Foreign language 2
Physical education 1
Fine arts 1
* No more than three elective credits can be in physical education or PE substitutes, such as football or another sport.
NOTE: Seniors in the 2009-10 school year need only three years of math and science, for a total of 24 credits, to graduate.
SOURCE: Texas Education Agency