New Identical Education Bills, SB 3 and HB 3,
Will Change Texas Public Education Forever

by Steven Schafersman, Ph.D.
Texas Citizens for Science
2009 March 11

I have extraordinarily important news about two identical bills that will, if passed, amend Texas high school graduation requirements. These two bills are SB 3 by Senator Florence Shapiro and HB 3 by Representative Rob Eissler. These two are the chairs, respectively, of the Senate Education Committee and the House Public Education Committee, the two committees that control public education and the State Board of Education in Texas. They are powerful legislators and their two bills have the best chance of passing this session. I have been in communication with the office of Senator Shapiro about the issue of math and science, and I have met and spoken with her on two occasions in past years but not on this issue yet, and I hope to see her again once I have fully understood the changes.

The two bills are identical and long (119 pages each) and quite complex, and I will only summarize and analyze the changes important to us (my criteria for "important" are to keep four years of math and science required in high school and to maximize the number of students who can take the new Earth and Space Science course and other science courses, including AP science courses). Much of the new legislation deals with assessment and accountability, and the changes are far-reaching and have obviously been in planning for a year and probably more. If the new bills are passed, public education in Texas will be radically changed for the better in ways that will compel state and local school officials to ensure that Texas students actually achieve college readiness, which most are not currently accomplishing.

The three high school graduation plans--minimum, recommended, and distinguished--are renamed to standard, Texas Diploma, and advanced. As before, the last two are college prep while the standard (formerly minimum) is not.

Amendment: "The State Board of Education shall adopt rules to allow courses offered in the foundation curriculum or the enrichment curriculum to simultaneously satisfy, to the extent practicable, more than one required credit for the standard, Texas Diploma, or advanced high school program in which the student is participating." I'm not sure how this will play out, but if passed it may allow some non-rigorous courses, including science courses, from the enrichment curriculum to satisfy the traditional requirement of science courses from the foundation curriculum. The enrichment curriculum includes career and technology (CT or CAT) education courses. For students planning to go into this program in high school and college (usually a two-year program), substituting some CT courses for science may not be bad. But this would not be acceptable for any student who plans to earn a four-year college degree. More specificity is needed here.

Amendment: "The State Board of Education shall adopt rules to authorize each school district to implement a program under which students in middle or junior high school may earn credits toward high school graduation in middle or junior high school for any course determined by board rule to qualify as a high school equivalent course." This will allow the better students to officially take high school courses while still in middle or junior high school, thus giving them more opportunities for electives in high school. This was not officially allowed before and is a good change, since some of them will want to take extra math and science courses.

The Texas Education Code is referenced repeatedly by HB 3 and SB 3 (which I will refer to collectively as "the bill"). You should have a digital copy of the TEC available. It can be used directly on the Web.

I am ignoring amendments about assessment and accountability in the bill at this time. This material is too complicated for me to quickly analyze and requires more specialized educational knowledge about these subjects than I possess.

Page 13 of the bill has some very important passages. First: "A school district shall ensure that each student enrolls in the courses necessary to complete the curriculum requirements identified by the State Board of Education under Subsection (a) for the Texas Diploma [recommended] or advanced high school program unless the student, the student’s parent or other person standing in parental relation to the student, and a school counselor or school administrator agree that the student should be permitted to take courses under the standard [minimum] high school program." This rule remains unchanged from before; with permission, students could take a reduced program (three math courses, two science courses, etc.) and still graduate from high school. I have no objection to the existence of the standard (formerly minimum) high school program for non-college bound students.

Second: "...the curriculum requirements for the Texas Diploma [recommended] and advanced high school programs under Subsection (a) include a requirement that students successfully complete: (A) four courses in each subject of the foundation curriculum..." plus two foreign language courses and eight elective courses. The newly-named standard high school program is then specified to continue to require three math courses and two science courses as before, plus three social studies courses, plus "one additional course in either science or social studies." Now this is new: the standard program would require students to take either a fourth social studies courses or a third science course. This might encourage students in the standard program to take three years of science, which would be quite beneficial.

Now, what's most important about this section is that, as everyone knows, the four subjects of the foundation curriculum are English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies, so the proposed bill continues to require four years each of math and science for the Texas Diploma, the recommended Texas high school graduate program suitable for college-bound students. This is really excellent and it is gratifying that Senator Shapiro and Representative Eissler both have the good sense to keep the 4x4 curriculum.

Third, the bill proposes the starting date for students entering ninth grade that must follow the requirements of the Texas Diploma plan. The bill says (p. 14) , "Notwithstanding" the graduation requirements passed in 2006 by the Texas Legislature, the "the curriculum requirements for the Texas Diploma and advanced high school programs under Section 28.025(b-1) [of the new bill] apply to students entering the ninth grade beginning with the 2011-2012 school year." I initially did not understand this language of the new bill, and mistakenly interpreted it to mean that Texas students must wait four more years to come under the new 4x4 curriculum requirement. I of course would disagree with such a delay in asking for better student achievement and performance. Why should we allow foreign countries to gain four more years of better achievement and preparation over our students?

If parents were sufficiently motivated by the prospect of their children failing to finish high school on time, they would appropriately motivate their students who--if they learned to take notes, learned to study, turn off their mobile phones and mp3 players, and paid attention in class without talking to each other--could easily pass the 4x4 Texas Diploma requirements right now. There are appropriate positive and negative behavioral reinforcement techniques available to motivate students sufficiently if parents would only cooperate with their children's education.

René LeBel, a person more knowledgeable about Texas education statutes than me, prepared a chart in Excel that illustrates what is probably the correct interpretation of the new bill's language. I converted it to a jpeg image:

What this chart shows is that the new bill, if passed, will gradually phase in the new high school graduation program over the next six years. The important thing to see in this chart is that the current 4x4 graduation program requirements are kept during the transition and will persist after the transition. In fact, as explained below, the main thrust of the bill is a really major overhaul of how school districts assess, track, and report on students' progress and achievement. The primary theme of the new bill is increased accountability, not a change in graduation program policy (although the names of the three high school programs are changed).

The bill continues with amendments that mandate more rigorous requirements for assessing, tracking, and reporting student performance. These new requirements will require a lot more effort and attention to detail from school district staff and administrators. The new assessing, tracking, and reporting requirements are needed to document the degree of college readiness of students. The new legislation will essentially oblige the TEA and SBOE to ensure that students that graduate with the Texas Diploma are college ready. In fact, the bill says this: "Once the level of satisfactory performance has been established at the level indicating college readiness, the agency shall continue to gather data and perform studies as provided under this section at least once every two years. If the data does not support the correlation between student performance standards and college readiness, the State Board of Education shall revise the standard of performance considered to be satisfactory." That is, the SBOE and TEA must work to bring students up to proper college-readiness standards under a stated timeline, and documentation must continue to demonstrate the college-readiness of high school Texas Diploma graduates, or the SBOE is mandated to increase the standard of performance up to the level to ensure college-readiness.

I like this language very much, since if passed, the law will force the SBOE to put some discipline into instruction and student performance to make sure that students reach the proper level. The result will be no more social promotion, grade inflation, and lax passing scores on end-of-course exams. I foresee much weeping among students and their parents, but that's what we need to get results. Our society and nation can't afford to continue to be out-competed by students and citizens in other countries.

The bill also has provisions for withholding accreditation of school districts that do not meet the new state requirements and standards. The bill specifies that dropout rates and graduation rates be computed in accordance with national standards, not by the traditional state and local standards that wildly and deliberately misstated the two rates for years. Just this provision will have a major effect on Texas public school improvement, since schools will no longer be able to hide poor performance behind manipulated dropout and graduation statistics. The new legislation has provisions for onsite investigations of schools assessment, tracking, statistical, and reporting methods and results. Student-to-staff ratios will be examined. Financial stability of school districts will be examined. The state will have extraordinary powers to intervene and take over school districts that fail to meet the new standards. School districts can be sanctioned for low-performance. There will be new initiatives for retaining quality educators. If the bill passes, it will no longer be business as usual.

There is a provision for the Commissioner of Higher Education to award grants to develop advanced math and science courses to prepare high school students for employment in high-demand occupations. There are other grant provisions for students and school districts. The bill is too long and complex for me to adequately analyze many of these provisions.

In conclusion, the bills by Senator Shapiro and Representative Eissler will greatly change the nature of Texas public education, no doubt for the better. Most importantly, from my point of view as a science educator, the 4x4 curriculum recommended for the Texas Diploma high school program has not been weakened by changing the math and science requirements to three courses each rather than four. No doubt this bill will be intensely studied and debated, as it should. At this time, I give the bill my preliminary approval.

Texas Citizens for Science
Last updated: 2009 March 12