Texas needs to know numbers

Most Texas public high school students take Algebra II when they are 16 years old. The class’ curriculum covers a wide range of topics, offering an intentionally superficial survey of complex ideas that are developed later in more rigorous coursework. Students learn about logarithms and complex numbers. They solve polynomials with obscure techniques like factoring and the quadratic formula. Not everyone finds these exercises thrilling, but we generally accept them as necessary. According to a study from the Educational Testing Service, the nonprofit responsible for administering the GRE and other standardized assessments, a student’s performance in Algebra II is a better predictor of college success than any other high school class.

Lawmakers in the Texas House of Representatives, however,  are questioning the importance of Algebra II with a new bill that would reduce the required math and science courses for high school graduation. House Bill 5, authored by Reps. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, John Davis, R-Houston, Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio and Bill Callegari, R-Houston, with more than 60 co-authors, has been approved in the House and awaits a vote in the Senate. If passed, it would remove Algebra II as a high school graduation requirement in Texas public schools by the 2013-2014 school year.

The proposed legislation is a mistake. Students will learn less under less-demanding curricula, which bodes poorly for this University and for the state as a whole.

Specifics learned in Algebra II, which rarely come in handy for students not pursuing math or science degrees, may be forgotten, but no English or history undergraduate is any worse for having taken the class in high school. On the contrary, work completed in 10th grade algebra and further quantitative classes teaches students to engage parts of their brains that might otherwise atrophy. If nothing else, we learned in Algebra II that we could learn something.

HB 5 would backtrack on Texas’ recent success in mathematics education. A 2013 report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicates that Texas eighth graders made a 32-point gain in math scores between 1990 and 2011. Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams told The Dallas Morning News in February that he attributes the achievement “to an emphasis Texas has placed on a critical core subject [math].”

The bipartisan nonprofit Achieve, which promotes higher academic standards nationwide, agrees with Williams. Achieve disapproves of HB 5 and considers it to be counterproductive to the success of future Texans. Its policy experts contend that students would fare better under legislation that requires additional emphasis on math as a core subject, not less. According to the Achieve policy agenda, “For high school graduates to be prepared for success in a wide range of postsecondary settings, they need to take four years of challenging mathematics.”

Supporters of HB 5 argue that the bill will provide flexibility. Students, they say, will have more room in their schedules to pursue classes of more immediate relevance to their career plans. A Senate analysis of the bill echoes that sentiment: “Many in business and industry are frustrated with the lack of applied core curriculum courses to prepare students for the growing labor demands in this state.”

But high school isn’t supposed to be about marketing oneself to prospective employers. Instead, students should learn to engage in — and develop an appreciation for — the wealth of career paths available to them. Learning to master concepts that don’t come easily is always relevant to a young student. No 16-year-old knows the specific skills his or her later career will require, but all 16-year-olds would benefit from a diverse set of problem-solving capabilities. Moreover, as Achieve’s president Michael Cohen asked the Houston Chronicle, “What kind of technical training doesn’t require some kind of advanced mathematics?”

It is especially unwise to discourage students from engaging in quantitative learning at a time of significant global competition in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Eliminating math and science requirements could effectively limit many students’ career paths. A student can always drop off the STEM track, but it is much more difficult to get back on. A college student whose last math course was 9th grade geometry would have to learn three years or more of math just to begin pursuing an engineering degree. Even more difficult would be to finish that degree in four years, a goal the University has aggressively adopted in recent years.

When Texas high schools fail to prepare their students, the onus of remedial education efforts and their associated costs fall on UT.

Texas students demand and deserve high academic standards. HB 5 threatens to deteriorate recent progress in Texas public education for no compelling reason.