AISD board considers statewide graduation changes

At its Dec. 2 work session, the Austin ISD board of trustees discussed options for how the school district can implement House Bill 5 and address statewide changes to graduation plans.

HB 5, which was signed into law earlier this year, replaces the state's Minimum, Recommended and Distinguished graduation plans with new Foundation High School Program plan options, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen explained.

Chief Academic Officer Pauline Dow said district staff will present more details about the plan and how AISD will address HB 5 to the board sometime in January.

"We have been working for months to prepare for the launch beginning with our eighth-grade students," she said.

The new graduation plans include a 22-credit Foundation diploma, which can be completed with endorsements—areas of concentration—for 26 credits. Students can also earn a Distinguished Level of Achievement by participating in advanced courses.

The school district is considering identifying a "default" graduation plan, which would automatically set students on one graduation course. Parents and students would be able to opt out of the default plan, Carstarphen said.

"At this time we are looking to recommend the Distinguished Level of Achievement as the default graduation plan for AISD," Carstarphen said, explaining the administration has reached out to groups including campus advisory councils, principals, parents and school communities. She said the Distinguished plan ties in with one of the board's major priorities, which is preparing students to be college- and career-ready.

Trustee Lori Moya pointed out state statute does not require districts to set default graduation plans.

The Distinguished Level of Achievement also requires students to take algebra II, and there is significant debate over whether algebra II prepares kids for college any better than any other courses, board President Vincent Torres said.

In November, the State Board of Education voted to require algebra II for some endorsements, such as science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, but the elected officials did not support algebra II in all other endorsements, Moya said.

"Why would we be doing something different than what the SBOE recommended?" Moya said. "I'm not convinced that the Distinguished plan is the only route to being college-bound."

She explained that if a student has three years of math but does not take algebra II, he or she can still apply to the University of Texas and other state institutions.

Another concern for the board is which of the graduation plans allows students to qualify for the top 10 percent of their class, a factor considered by many universities including The University of Texas, trustee Robert Schneider said.

"Last time I looked at the acceptance rates for UT [at] kids that aren't in the top 10 percent, there are not very many of those—there are some, but there are not very many at all," he said.

Additionally, even though the state does not include health education, speech or a third semester of physical education as part of the graduation plan, AISD recommended the board approve a customized plan including one semester of PE, including one semester of speech and integrating health into another course, Carstarphen said.

Paul Cruz, AISD's chief of schools officer, explained some of the detailed parts of the law to the board.

"There are so many nuances in here," he said.

The SBOE is preparing to identify which specific courses are "advanced courses" to satisfy the requirements of the endorsements and Distinguished Level of Achievement, Cruz said. The SBOE will post those courses for the public to provide feedback on, and on Jan. 30 the organization will take its final vote on those courses.

The AISD board plans to continue its discussion of HB 5 at upcoming meetings.