AUSTIN -- Whether you're laying a road or launching a rocket, without math you're flying blind.
Just how much math Texas students need is the topic of heated debate at the State Board of Education.
"We have a concern about requiring Algebra II for all students in order to graduate from high school," Nacogdoches ISD Assistant Superintendent Sandra Stewart told board members at a Wednesday hearing.
"Is it the lynchpin for success after high school that we have made it out to be in Austin?" asked board vice chair Thomas Ratliff. Stewart responded, "No, we don't believe so."
Passed during the 83rd Texas Legislature, House Bill 5 overhauled graduation requirements in an effort to give districts more flexibility and increase college and career readiness. Students entering high school are allowed to choose one of five "endorsement" tracks: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), Business and Industry, Public Services, Arts and Humanities and Multidisciplinary Studies.
Students graduating with a "Distinguished Level of Achievement" are still required to complete Algebra II, but which role the class plays for students graduating under the regular plan remains largely up to districts to decide.
On one side of the equation is the argument that students who plan to go directly into the workforce after high school simply don't need the additional algebra class. Advocates for allowing districts more leeway regarding Algebra II requirements suggest doing so may decrease dropout rates attributed to academic underperformance.
"Everybody needs a high school diploma or a GED," said Mike Meroney with the Jobs for Texas Coalition. "We'd rather have them in high school, finishing high school with a meaningful diploma that can get them prepared for the workforce or for college."
Testifying many Texas employers are desperate for skilled workers in areas such as welding and pipefitting that don't require a four-year college degree, Meroney quickly dismissed the suggestion that students graduating with industry certifications would be settling for lower-earning jobs. Talking with KVUE afterwards, he pointed to the job of welder as an example.
"A year out of high school you could be making thirty, forty, fifty dollars an hour," said Meroney. "You go work on the oil rigs out in the Gulf, you could be making $80,000 a year."
Texas high school students pursuing welding certification programs under the previous graduation requirements are still required to take Algebra II, which Meroney argues doesn't make sense.
"He doesn't need a college education, but he needs Algebra II. A welder does. You got a problem with that?" board member Geraldine Miller questioned during Meroney's testimony. He responded, "Yes ma'am."
"Kids all over the world are learning Algebra II," testified Texas A&M International University President Ray Keck, who pointed to breakthroughs made by lower-income districts in South Texas in raising math scores as proof that new teaching practices, not less rigor, is the solution. "You can do it, you just need a better structure to learn it."
The course is required for automatic admission to state universities under the "Ten Percent" rule, as well as for associate degrees, higher level certifications, and portions of both the SAT and ACT exams. Those who advocate requiring Algebra II for all five endorsement tracks warn without it, many students could be unwittingly locked out of a higher education.
"Whether or not they decide to go to college, we need to prepare our students to be college and career ready," said Celina Moreno with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). "what could happen is what's already happened in the past. Texas has a legacy of tracking students, particularly low-income and minority students, into lower level curricular tracks, and we don't want to see a repeat of that."
There may be a tenuous middle ground.
"In asking our members, they have very clearly said to us that they don't think that all students should be required to take the Algebra II course," said Monty Exter with the Association of Texas Professional Educators. "But they have also said to us that they would like for all students to be getting the skills necessary to be college and career ready. And those two things can coexist."
"There are only a certain subset of skills within Algebra II that are actually the college ready skills," Exter explained. "You can find those in other courses: An Advanced Statistics course would have them. Math Modeling would have them. If the state decides to create an Applied Algebra II course, that course would theoretically have them. So really what we're asking for is not that you require everyone to take Algebra II, but that you require everyone to take a class that has the skills necessary to be college and career ready."
Of course colleges and universities would have to be convinced such courses are satisfactory equivalents, and test scores would likely be closely analyzed to determine whether the courses successfully convey the necessary skills.
The board is expected to vote on Friday.