Vocal critics include powerful lobbying group Texas Association of Business, which accused Texas of dumbing-down curriculum. The Texas Latino Education Coalition said the change could allow students from low-income backgrounds to skate through high school despite having college potential.
But parent and teacher groups supported the change, saying it afforded flexibility to school districts, which can still require algebra II. Stephen Waddell, superintendent in the Dallas suburb of Lewisville, said mandating algebra II was unnecessary because most high schoolers take it anyway.
"The only way you are going to get flexibility is not requiring every single thing a student has to take," Waddell said.
Isabel Hutt credits algebra II for dramatically raising her SAT scores, but the 16-year-old admits she wouldn't be in the class if it weren't required. She plans to study Spanish and social work in college.
"That would have been a dream come true, if I had stopped after geometry," said Hutt, an 11th grader at Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio.
Chris Witte, who oversees chemical giant BASF's production facility in Freeport, Texas, said his company offers lucrative jobs for individuals with two-year degrees or focused high school career training.
"Is algebra II required for every job out at our site? The answer is no," Witte said.
Witte said the course is beneficial, but he and Texas lawmakers argued the vigorous math course was pushing some students to drop out.
But the Texas Education Agency reported last summer that an all-time high — nearly 88 percent of students from the Class of 2012 — graduated on time. It was the fifth consecutive year of improvement.
Students' scores on college entrance exams also improved. According to data released in March, Texas students' ACT scores matched the national average of 20.9. And 48 percent, compared to 44 percent nationally, met math benchmarks that included being ready for college-level algebra.
Officials in Washington state recently compared school districts with and without more strenuous requirements and found no correlation between graduation rates and higher standards, said Dounay Zinth, the education policy analyst.
Graduation rates in Indiana also didn't dip with increased standards, she said.
Both states require algebra II, as do Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah.
"There's a fear that if we set higher standards for all students, more students will drop out," Dounay Zinth said. "And the data do not bear that out at all."
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