Thursday, October 02, 2008

Another Bad Move by the State Educrats

I received a disturbing email from TMEA, the state music educators' association, this morning. It referenced this press release, sent out under the banner of the Texas Coalition for Quality Arts Education:
Fine arts advocates today urged the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to include high school students’ grades in state-approved fine arts courses in the uniform grade point average calculation.

“It is truly astonishing that statements have recently come from the coordinating board’s staff denigrating the study of music and the other fine arts as ‘non-academic’ and thus equating these courses to extra-curricular athletic events,” said Robert Floyd, Executive Director of the Texas Music Educators Association, at a public hearing in Austin.

A state law passed in the last legislative session requires the Higher Education Coordinating Board to adopt a uniform high school GPA formula for use by Texas universities. Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes has proposed a rule for adoption at the board’s October meeting that excludes grades from fine arts courses in the GPA calculation, but includes and gives extra weight to Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and dual credit fine arts courses.

“Surely the members of the board do not want the State of Texas to go on record as a place where the study of music and the other fine arts is not considered academic,” Floyd said. “If the Coordinating Board fails to recognize the hard work and academic achievements of the 650,000 Texas high school students enrolled in fine arts courses, I’m sure the board and members of the legislature will hear from outraged parents throughout the state.”

Floyd pointed out that Texas law includes fine arts among the academic subjects of the required curriculum. The law also mandates that all instruction in these required subjects, including fine arts, be based on the rigorous standards outlined in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) adopted by the State Board of Education.

Fine arts courses are also included in the core academic curriculum of the federal “No Child Left Behind” law.

“Once and for all, we must end the misconception that studying, rehearsing and performing music in classrooms across Texas is an extra-curricular activity,” Floyd said. “Any professional educator who believes that is appallingly misinformed about Texas education law.”

Floyd testified to the board on behalf of the Texas Coalition for Quality Arts Education, a coalition of more than 40 organizations that promotes quality fine arts instruction for every student in Texas schools.
There are two things wrong with this law, and I'll discuss the less-obvious one (at least for me) first:
  • All GPA's are not created equal, and there's no reason to pretend that they are. The Uniform GPA Calculation rules are flawed from the start. The rules state that every course that's not an AP (Advanced Placement), IB (International Baccalaureate--a rigorous curriculum available at select schools), or dual-credit course will be weighted according to the exact same four-point scale. This is a departure from the past, where advanced or "honors" courses were sometimes given five points for an A, whereas a "regulars" course might give four points for that same A. (When I was in school, students in a remedial course were awarded three points for the A; I have no problem with weighting grades in remedial and regulars courses equally, but I still understand the reward for the extra work done in an honors course.)

    It should be pointed out that this is being done in response to the "ten percent rule," which requires any undergraduate institution of higher education in Texas to admit anyone who graduated in the top ten percent of his/her high school class (this is obviously a big issue at schools like UT and A&M, which, by nature of their popularity, have to limit enrollment). The schools are also expected to make a decision as to whether or not to automatically admit anyone in the top 25 percent of the class.

    But, needless to say, school districts don't calculate their GPA's in the same way; some gave the extra grade point for pre-AP courses as well as honors courses, while some do not. (And according to this opinion from the office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, it appears that the districts are free to use their own formulas to calculate GPA's used for class rank, but the new state rules must be used when reporting students' GPA's to college admissions offices. The two-pronged GPA sounds confusing to me, but some districts may well be doing that.)

    So while I can understand the basic premise of the rules, I still can't get past the idea that it sounds like dumbing-down to me. If a "poorer" school district doesn't have as many honors or AP classes as a "richer" district, the solution is not necessarily to slice off the edges and pretend that everyone's in a great big "middle." The kid who took all honors and AP classes should have something to show for it, and the other districts can make up for the discrepancy in other ways, such as magnet programs (i.e. if having the advanced classes at all the schools isn't feasible, they can be held at one school and bus kids in according to who wants to take the courses) and giving more state aid to schools in the first place.

    And if they are going to have this standardized GPA, a lot more courses need to be on the "included" list for the calculation. According to one local school district, the absence of pre-AP classes from those allowed to award extra grade points is causing problems:
    A primary concern is that PreAP courses are not given extra weight in calculating the uniform GPA. Educators and parents know that without the extra weight, students’ interest in taking the more rigorous PreAP courses will be greatly diminished and subsequent enrollment in college-prep AP classes will suffer. Another concern is that the proposed uniform GPA does not include courses that are required under the state’s recommended graduation plan.

    In his letter to the THECB, [Richardson ISD] Superintendent Dr. David Simmons, requests that changes be made to their proposed rules. “Preparing students for college level academics is a primary goal of public education, and not allowing a weight for PreAP courses is contrary to the college readiness standards supported by the THECB and the Texas Education Agency. Additionally, the rules for a uniform GPA must include courses other than just those in the core content areas. Courses like Economics, Fine Arts, Health, and Physical Education, as well as other electives including Career and Technical courses are important to students’ overall education. The exclusion of these courses would result in a GPA which is not reflective of the entire scope of the high school program.”
    Well said. And now on to my pet topic:

  • Fine arts are academic courses, not extracurricular ones; I can't believe that we're still talking about this. Robert Floyd of TMEA said it all in his quote above: Fine arts are not extracurricular. The state agrees with this (as proven by the arts' inclusion in TEKS), so why does this board have trouble understanding it? Certainly, some fine arts courses have extracurricular elements to them (marching band, UIL one-act play, etc.), but those elements do not comprise the whole of a fine arts course. As Floyd points out, denying them their credit for their hard work is a slap in the face to many, many students.
Rulings like this have me doubting the integrity and intelligence of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, whatever that might be (anyone want to bet that it's made up of people who don't teach anymore?). Since this post is already going out several days late, I don't have time to fully research this, but all I can say for now is this: Do your homework, folks, and fix this mistake. Now. If not, a whole lot of angry parents will be "marching" on your office in the weeks ahead.

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to my friend and occasional fellow jazzblogger Shawn.

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