Texas Can Achieve Its Main Education Goal

by Dr. Michael Marder, Executive Director of UTeach and Professor in the Department of Physics, University of Texas at Austin

See Part 1 of this series: Can Texas Achieve Its Main Education Goal?

60x30TX is a plan to increase the percentage of young Texans with college degrees and certificates to 60 percent by 2030. Once the goals are clearly defined, a path to achieve them opens.

The main goal of Texas’s current 60x30 plan is this: “By 2030, at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25–34 will have a certificate or degree.” The current rate for postsecondary completion is 22%, and about to drop because college readiness fell by nearly half in 2016. How can the state reach an ambitious education goal while moving fast in the wrong direction?

There is hope, because nothing is quite what it seems. The drop in college readiness happened because Texas canceled the main tests that proved students ready, not because students were less ready. The official postsecondary completion rate leaves out nearly half the Texas high school students who get a degree. The goal for young Texans neglects to mention that nearly half don’t grow up in Texas.

College Readiness

Texas started measuring college readiness for every high school student in 2006–2007. It mattered because only students whom the state said were college ready could take Texas college courses without remediation. College readiness rose for a decade before plunging in 2015–2016. The plunge was due to a change in testing, and not how schools were run, teachers taught, or students learned. The main way students proved they were college ready had been by doing well enough on mandatory English III and Algebra II exams. In the Spring of 2013, the Legislature canceled these exams as part of an anti-testing backlash and left students only with optional exams not connected with courses.

This is a solvable problem. If the state really wants to increase the number of students who complete a college degree or certificate, it must address the following issues:

— To take college courses without remediation students have to be deemed college ready; and

— To be deemed college eady they have to pass a test; and

— Experience shows that the best way for students to pass the test is during high school when teachers can help them; and

— Teachers can help the best when the test is connected to a class (as Algebra II and English III tests had been) rather than when the test is not (as the Texas Success Initiative Assessment or SAT are today).

— This indicates that if the state values having students demonstrate college readiness, it needs to go back to offering properly supported tests in high school.

Why have three years passed without a plan since Texas college readiness plunged?

Postsecondary Completion

Officials frequently repeat that only 22% of Texas 8th graders earn a postsecondary degree or certificate. This is misleading. It’s like saying that Texas faces a massive gasoline shortage and then it turns out that only the supply from ExxonMobil was included, leaving out Shell, Chevron, and Valero. Here are some populations left out of the reported postsecondary completion rates:

— Private school students.

— Students who leave Texas after 8thgrade before finishing high school.

— Students who come to Texas after 8thgrade and finish high school.

— Texas high school graduates who go to college out of state.

— Texas high school graduates who get their degree or certificate more than 6 years after high school.

Put it all together, and around 40% of Texas 8th graders eventually get a degree. Count all the degrees and the state jumps nearly halfway to meeting its 60x30TX goal.

Why emphasize a misleading statistic that makes a worthy state goal sound even more difficult than it really is?

Young Texans

The young Texans for whom the 60x30TX goal is defined are people aged 25 to 34 living in Texas. Texas attracts a flow of people from almost every other state, and from many other countries. Among the young Texans, 40% arrived after 8th grade, and most of those after high school. The education level of people moving into the state is very similar to those who came from Texas high schools: a bit above 40%.

Why pose the problem of workforce education only in terms of Texas schools and colleges when nearly half the Texas workforce comes from out of state?

A Plan

When a problem is well defined, it becomes possible to develop a plan. First, return college readiness rates to the level the state had achieved in 2016 by reinstating appropriate tests. These need not be the same college readiness tests as before, but they should have these key features: courses lead to them, the state pays for them, students have to take them, and they have multiple opportunities to pass. Second, returning to the college readiness rates of 2016 is not enough. Postsecondary attainment needs to rise an additional 20 points. One promising way to approach this is to ramp up offerings of dual-enrollment courses that give students college credit and a real college experience while in high school. Policies to prepare and support teachers in shortage areas such as STEM are also needed. Third, stop implying that Texas schools and colleges are somehow responsible for the education of the young Texans who move in from out of state. Define the aims of the 60x30TX plan by the educational attainment of Texas students, and leave the education level of people moving to Texas to the market forces that motivate them to come.

Achieving the goals of 60x30TX is not easy. Once they are clearly defined, a path forward becomes visible. The last few years were lost.

It’s time to start.