Texas board of education hurting students long-term by cutting algebra II

In an ongoing effort to reshape high school curriculum in Texas, the State Board of Education has voted to eliminate algebra II as a graduation requirement starting next year. Instead, Texas high schools will offer algebra II along with two alternative courses: statistics and algebraic reasoning. These two courses will be designed and implemented at the district level, with help from the Texas Education Agency

The restructuring comes as a result of new specialized diploma paths in areas such as science and technology or business, according to the Texas Tribune. The paths will determine which math course each individual student needs to graduate. The Austin American-Statesman reported that these new requirements will replace the “4×4 graduation” plan, which the state set in place only five years ago. That plan required students to take courses in English, science, history and math during each of their four years of high school.

The new graduation requirements open the door for students to have a greater say in the courses they take in high school and are meant to better prepare them for certain career paths before they have even applied for college. The plan, however, is lacking key components necessary for a successful launch. Algebra II is just one example of how the effort to revamp the system overlooks real long-term benefits for students.

As a requirement, algebra II held students to a certain standard of problem solving and foundational math skills that would be expected in more advanced courses, including calculus. Algebra II may not have been the perfect course, but it was one that all Texas students entering college had under their belt. Those skills were taught across the board and up to the state’s standards, although between districts and among teachers there was bound to be variation in the course material. Now, with the increased variety of equivalent courses, students entering college in Texas will likely struggle to keep up.

The new alternatives also assume that high school students choosing a diploma path outside of science and technology will never need the skills taught in algebra II and will never change their mind about their prospective career paths in the future.

“Algebra II, which establishes the foundation for quantitative reasoning, is increasingly necessary for most career choices today,” said mathematics professor William Beckner. “Students would have to make up the material from algebra II before they took even the most introductory class in mathematics at any university or college of recognized quality. Not only math, but they wouldn’t be able to take intro classes in astronomy, chemistry, computer science, economics, physics and statistics — or be admitted to programs in business or engineering.”

Beckner said that high school courses should be focused on giving students insight into how mathematics is used across disciplines, instead of dismissing its use in those fields that are not directly centered on math skills.

But does that mean algebra II is the only appropriate course to prepare students for college-level math courses? Curriculum and instruction professor Walter Stroup thinks other courses can likely stand in for algebra II as long as the rigor is preserved and the skills it imparts are not sacrificed. Stroup that said the course itself serves mainly as a precursor to calculus and that other, broader math courses may better prepare students for college statistical courses offered throughout UT. We agree that other courses specially designed for non-math students will likely prepare them adequately, but we still must raise our concern at the lack of central oversight of the courses’ syllabi. 

By allowing school districts to write their own syllabi, the Board of Education has made it more difficult to analyze student success, according to education consultant Cynthia Schneider, who works with Texas school districts. The set of standards used now will not be applicable across the board and the experimental curriculum will confound meaningful inter-district comparisons.

Regardless of whether students plan to pursue a career in math or science, the skills taught in a course like algebra II will serve them well into their careers and shouldn’t be discounted as mere high-school drudgery. That goes for everyone involved: students, teachers, administrators and board members alike. The state should be focusing on what mathematics skills students can learn to apply outside of the classroom as well as incorporating them into a new set of standards for our math courses — for all students. When we can turn those needs into a course and those courses into a degree plan the state will be on the right track and so will its students.