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Educators Concerned Reforms Could Limit College Options

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This story has been co-reported for Reporting Texas and KUT News.

Now that leading Texas educators are catching up with the fine print in the state’s new omnibus education reform law, they find themselves chafing over a previously overlooked prospect: Even students who score straight A’s throughout high school might not be eligible for automatic admission to state-run universities.

Under new graduation requirements contained in House Bill 5, approved by the Legislature in May, students graduating with the most basic degree, the so-called foundation plan, won’t be counted in a school’s end-of-year class rankings. Under state law, only graduates in the top 10 percent of their classes are automatically admitted to the state’s public universities.

Concerned educators argue that this provision, which takes effect for incoming ninth-graders next fall, also would create a two-track educational system that relegates greater numbers of individuals to a mediocre, second-tier education. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 48,310 students used their ranking to gain admission to college in fall 2012 out of 61,518 students applying to public four-year universities. It is not clear how HB 5 will affect those numbers.

“We could be sending a signal to some students that they don’t need a rigorous high school education,” said Texas State University President Denise Trauth. “I’ve never said that every young person in Texas needs a four-year degree, but what they have to have is something post-high school that will prepare them for the workforce.”

The new law allows 10th-grade students to choose among three graduation plans, two on the college-ready track, called the distinguished and endorsement plans, and the foundation plan, which is considered the career-ready track. Students who go the foundation route will not be eligible for a Top 10 ranking. Nor will they complete college admission requirements, which usually require four years of English, science, social studies and math.

Jude Valdez, vice president for community services at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said colleges have struggled with HB 5 because they have yet to receive direction from the state or the public education community on how the rankings will be affected. Some university officials worry students will be confused by HB 5 and expect to get automatic admission even if they don’t meet the requirements.

“High schools are grappling with how they’re going to get this whole thing into place by next year,” Valdez said. “They’re just struggling on how to get it going.”

Meanwhile, stakeholders in higher education have begun to understand the limits on admissions that are written into the complex new law.

Raymund Paredes, Texas’ higher education commissioner, said the state can’t expect students to know whether they want to go to college at the beginning of their high school career.

“It is highly likely they will change their minds between the ninth and 12th grade,” Paredes said. “So they need to have a strong academic foundation regardless of what they plan to do.”

HB 5’s author, state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, a Killeen Republican, dismissed concerns the law will affect college access.

“The Top 10 Percent has only been available to those top-performing students, anyhow,” Aycock said. If students expect to qualify, he said, “they need to step up and take Algebra II and complete an endorsement and the whole deal.”

Aycock said the new system would affect only students who want to go to the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, the state’s flagship institutions, but state numbers tell a different story.

According to the Coordinating Board, there were 21,408 top 10 applications to UT and A&M in fall 2012 – almost 50 percent of total applications. There were 26,902, applications to other institutions in fall 2012.

Disputes over HB 5 are nothing new. During the session, the bill spurred questions over whether the state was decreasing rigor in public schools. Proponents said the bill would allow students to gain skills needed in career and technical fields, and meet growing labor demands.

Under the law, the so-called "4x4" curriculum, which required students to take four years of English, science, social studies and math, is no longer mandatory. Students in the two college-ready plans will continue to take four years of the four courses, but students in the foundation must take four years of English and only three years of the other core courses.

Students who graduate under distinguished and endorsement plans, the college-ready tracks, also take classes in areas of interest. Endorsements include business and industry, public services, arts and humanities and multidisciplinary studies.

Cyprus Springs High School counselor Sharon Bey says she is not overly concerned students will have their college choices diminished since, typically, school officials start speaking to students about the future while they’re still in elementary school.

“I think that’s reasonable, and even as a parent I would want my students to make those choices a lot earlier than ninth grade,” Bey said. “I think we’re doing a disservice if we don’t talk to them early.”

Other educators fear some students will never have a discussion about college. Texas State President Trauth said she is concerned HB 5 might increase school tracking, a practice in which school officials identified non-college students early on and put them in certain classes. School officials often have low expectations for minority students, especially blacks.

“What I would hate to see happen here is young people decide at a very young age that they’re not going to go to college and then they don’t take the courses you need to get into college,” Trauth said. “And down the road they change their mind, but it’s too late to go back and start over.”

George Norton, associate vice president for student affairs at UT-San Antonio, acknowledges that HB 5 may give students more options to pursue career and technical training. By lowering high school graduation standards, he said, the state might also improve graduation rates and allow more students to qualify for college.

However, Norton said that by limiting access to the state’s top schools, HB 5 would likely make it harder for students to succeed.

“Any time high school graduation requirements are watered down… it is a disservice for students in that curriculum,” Norton said. “They will simply be less prepared regardless of what direction they take in life and in the workplace.”

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