In January 2013, as he stood before an Austin gathering of about 3,000 Texas public school officials, the state’s education commissioner issued a plea.
If the state backed away from its high school graduation standards, Michael Williams said, it would do “nothing more than put at great risk the futures” of Texas students.
“We've got to hold the line, and all of us have got to show a little courage in this thing,” he said.
Five months later, the Texas Legislature passed a comprehensive overhaul of high school diploma requirements that included dropping an existing requirement that all students take algebra II to graduate and dramatically reducing the number of state standardized exams.
Thousands of parents and educators who had filled legislative committee hearings and tied up Capitol office phone lines did not share Williams’ fears about straying from the state’s high school curriculum standards, which had become some of the toughest in the nation by the mid-2000s. If legislators did, few expressed it publicly.
The momentum drowned out the voices of critics who cautioned that backing away from the state’s high standards amid a surging economy and increased demand for skilled workers could lead to future challenges. The statewide backlash was fueled in part by anxiety over how public schools would meet the high standards following the 2011 Legislature’s $5.4 billion cut to public education.
In 2013, proponents of the looser standards, including House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, a Killeen Republican who was the law’s primary architect, said the state needed to offer more preparation for students entering the workforce directly from high school — and to get rid of the rigidity of the current system’s “one-size-fits-all” approach.
For years, Texas policymakers had pushed for increasingly advanced science and math course requirements, along with standardized test-driven accountability, as a solution to the persistent gap in academic achievement between black and Hispanic students and their white peers.
By certain metrics, the heavy-handed approach to testing and stringent course requirements appeared to work. Over the last decade, Texas saw consistent progress on the number of students graduating from high school on time and attending college. Texas students also earned steadily higher scores — among some demographics, beating the national average — on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a standardized exam that measures reading and math skills among fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders across the country. College attendance rates have grown by almost 10 percent among black and Hispanic students since 2004.
But improvement on national academic measures has begun to stall in recent years. In 2013, for the first time in 15 years, math and reading scores went down or stayed the same for black and Hispanic students in both fourth and eighth grades. The scores also went down for Anglo students in some areas.
Performance on the ACT and SAT, the college admissions exams administered to most high school students in the state, has also either flatlined or dropped.
ACT scores have shown an incremental improvement, from 20.1 in 2004 to 20.9 in 2013. Twenty-six percent of Texas’ class of 2013 met the College Board’s “college ready” benchmarks in English, reading, math and science, climbing a tenth of a percentage point to reach the national average — which had dropped from 21.1 to 20.9 between 2012 and 2013 — for the first time in a decade.
Since 2005, however, Texas students’ SAT scores have decreased by 8 points in reading and 6 points in math. High school seniors lagged behind the national average on each of the math, verbal and writing portions of the test in 2013. In the latter two subjects, that lag was almost 20 points.
There is disagreement over why that has happened.
Some education policy experts argue that gains have slowed because the state has not increased standards enough. The biggest jump in student performance occurred when Texas ended social promotion — the practice of allowing students to graduate with their age group without passing — and instituted more rigorous state assessments in the mid-1990s, said Drew Scheberle, who is vice president of the Austin Chamber of Commerce and is engaged in education issues before the Legislature.
“We are not increasing our expectations the way that Massachusetts or Florida is, and you can see it,” he said. “We are not helping our middle performers.”
But attributing students’ improving or declining academic performance to a single reason can be misleading, said Carolyn Heinrich, a researcher and education professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
“It’s a really hard thing to get at causally — whether this change in standards or money or policy did or didn’t lead to this improvement in performance,” said Heinrich, a critic of standardized testing who has studied the consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act nationwide.
“People who say, ‘Oh, it was the accountability policies’ — how can we know that things like changing demographics, things that are being done locally, or whether we are doing a better job getting children health and nutrition support aren’t playing a role?”
State education officials attribute the sluggish improvement on national exams to the growing number of students choosing to take them — as is the case with the college admissions tests — and, in the case of the NAEP, the state’s rising percentage of economically disadvantaged and minority students.
The participation rates of black and Hispanic students in college entrance exams have both increased in Texas by about 15 percentage points since 2004. On average, those students underperform on the exams when compared to their peers. In that same period, the overall percentage of students taking the exams has grown from 61 percent to 76 percent.
Williams takes this rising participation as evidence that the state is building a college-going culture.
"More Texas students are taking the SAT and AP exams because they have career aspirations that require education beyond high school," he said in a statement announcing Texas’ most recent SAT scores. "As a state, our job should be to provide every student a solid foundation to assure they not only begin that dream, but can make it across the finish line at the post-secondary level."
But while the rate of students earning high school diplomas and moving on to higher education has gone up, the rate of students leaving college once they get there has either stayed the same or dropped. At two-year institutions in particular, one out of every three students fails to return for his or her second year. Of students who attend four-year universities, 30 percent don’t finish.
“We have a long way to go,” said David Gardner, a deputy commissioner at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. But he added that he was proud of the state’s progress so far.
He said higher education institutions in Texas are trying to find ways to help students address the challenges they face in their personal lives that might keep them from returning to college.
“You always have these risk factors outside of the institution,” he said. “The older you get, the more responsibilities you have. You could be in debt, get married, have children. Every one of those things, if support isn’t provided, can hinder you from finishing college.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. The Austin Chamber of Commerce was a corporate sponsor of the Tribune in 2011. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.