By WILL WEISSERT
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- The Texas Board of Education gave preliminary approve Thursday to dropping algebra II as a requirement for high school students to graduate, over the objections of critics who say the state is watering down its academic standards.
The board opted not to toughen a major overhaul of graduation and curriculum requirements that were unanimously approved by the state Legislature in May and designed to give students the flexibility to focus on career and vocational training -- not just college prep courses.
The board is charged with implementing the overhaul for the start of the 2014-2015 school year. The state is also stepping back from the strenuous accountability policies it has long been a national leader in championing, amid fears that youngsters are being forced to take too many high-stakes tests and that too many might drop out because of higher expectations.
Thursday's vote was just the first of several that the board will take on the issue. The board usually doesn't change its mind on subsequent votes -- but has been known to pull some surprises, especially on hot-button issues. Another vote is scheduled for Friday, followed by two more during the board's January meeting.
The federal No Child Left Behind law was born in Texas, and billionaire Ross Perot first rallied big business to support tougher standardized testing and high school graduation standards here nearly three decades ago.
Many academic experts and school administrators had argued that algebra II specifically is a key prerequisite for success both in college and beyond. But some trade groups argued that plenty of high-paying jobs are available in Texas without a college degree or high-level math.
Texas' current curriculum standards already let students earning a diploma on the minimum academic plan to graduate without algebra II -- and about 20 percent of students do. But critics fear the changes will allow more to do so.
Algebra II will still be required for students who want "distinguished" degrees that allow them to qualify for automatic admission to any state public university in Texas. It will also be required of students who choose diploma plans that focus on science, technology, engineering and math.
But the board removed the requirement for students who choose all other diploma paths: arts and humanities, business and industry, multidisciplinary studies and public service. Students can also earn "foundation" degrees that don't include higher math or science requirements and don't focus on a particular discipline.
Some 17 states, including Texas, require algebra II -- or at least start high school students in a default course plan including it or more advanced math studies, according to a 2012 report compiled by Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to strengthening academic standards nationwide.
The new Texas law also cut the number of standardized tests students must pass to graduate from a nation-high 15 to five.
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