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The Bush Institute Talks Academic Standards with Raymund Paredes

April 16, 2015 by George W. Bush Presidential Center

Debates over academic standards and whether students are meeting them are roiling across many states, including Texas. The outcome of those debates will affect the degree to which students are prepared for college or a good job after high school.

In this Bush Institute interview, Dr. Raymund Paredes, Texas’ higher education commissioner, shares his views on standards, testing and academic rigor.

The Texas Legislature is considering rolling back requirements for high school diplomas. Students who fail up to two of Texas’ five end-of-course exams may still graduate, if a committee including their parents and teachers agree. What is your thought about this change?

I am concerned that we are cutting tests back too much. I understand the consternation two years ago in Austin about the number of high school end-of-course tests. But now I am concerned that we will not have enough information about how our students are doing academically.

These committees can be effective if they have rigorous standards. But I don’t know if they will have them. More generally, I am concerned about the rigor in our K-12 sector.

Wouldn’t it be better to focus on heavy-duty interventions with kids who are not college-ready, including as early as elementary school?

It depends upon what the committees do. Will they make certain that students can write, compute and communicate and are held to appropriate levels of rigor? Will they develop new ways to measure student learning? If the committees do that, students can take fewer tests and be deemed competent. But I worry that that will happen.

You mentioned being concerned about level of rigor in the K-12 arena. What gives you pause?

Look at how the U.S. fares in comparison with high-achieving countries. I am not so far removed from the classroom that I can’t still recall my university students who couldn’t write very well, who had weak critical thinking skills. They had not been held to high level of expectations.

Texas’ English II graduation test asks students to show they can use words like however and that they can write a persuasive essay. You are a former English professor. What are a student’s chances for succeeding in college if they can’t master those skills?

Going back to this committee process, I hope we make certain these graduation committees recognize they are not doing children any favors if they simply pass them out of high school without solid academic skills. I am concerned about the notion that regular testing is inherently unhealthy for students. If our kids were doing great on all these tests, no one would be complaining about them

As you know, Washington is debating the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. A big part of the debate is over including annual independent tests in grades three through eight and once in high school. What is your take about such tests?

We need evidence. We need evaluations at least once a year. We need to know where students are in their academic progress.

I taught fifth grade for one year. My students had to take standardized tests. My strategy was to teach way above the level of the tests so the exams would not be difficult.

I am puzzled by this notion that students and teachers are getting stressed about impending tests, if they are well prepared.

The Higher Education Coordinating Board has worked hard to broaden Texas’ college-going population. But help me understand some recent data.

Between 2007 and 2011, the number of bachelor degrees, associates degrees and technical certificates being awarded each year in Texas were going up by 12,000 to 15,000 annually. Since 2012, they have gone up by only 6,000 to 8,000 annually. What do these numbers mean? This seems like a slowdown.

I don’t think this is a long enough period of time to establish a pattern. We do know there is variation in graduation rates and completions depending on such factors as the state of the economy and job market. But, overall, for the past 15 years higher education completion rates in Texas have improved dramatically.

An improving economy can lower completion rates. People drop out of school to take jobs. That’s particularly true in community college. A student may get a job in welding before completing a certificate. And some may be going to jobs right after getting their certificates. They may not be going on to get other credentials.

Community colleges have been concerned about the lack of productivity in students getting their associates’ degrees.

Some students may also be transferring to four-year universities once they have finished their core community college courses. They may be leaving before getting a two-year degree.

Do you worry that rolling back expectations for students will chip away at those gains? In other words, students from affluent families will have a leg up on students from lower-income families when it comes to attending college.

The disparities between the affluent and poor are growing in the country and in Texas. Regarding the new high school endorsements, I don’t think there is inherently less rigor in some pathways to high school graduation versus other pathways. We just need to work harder to make sure that all pathways are rigorous. We need to make certain all our high school students get a strong academic foundation regardless of pathway and that poor children have the same level of access to rigorous college pathways as affluent students.

What is being done by the state or universities to help first-generation college students fit in on campuses?

The first thing we need to do is dump the term “non-traditional” students. They have been the dominant students in some sectors of higher education for years. Students who are the first in their family to attend college are often the norm, not “non-traditional.”

We should do a better job responding to their needs. We don’t have enough counseling, mentoring or tutoring for these students. Up until a couple of years ago, we did not have strong diagnostic tools to measure college readiness.

Also, a lot of these students work part-time. So, we need block scheduling that gives them some predictability about the timing and availability of their courses.

The greatest characteristic of these students is they are poor and that correlates generally with going to low-performing high schools. They need a stronger academic foundation and more help once they arrive on a college or university campus. We need faculty to get more directly involved in helping these students succeed.

The Dallas Morning News reported recently on universities in Texas and Mexico sharing education resources as a way to help the students and make North America more competitive. What role do you see universities in Canada, Mexico and the U.S. playing to keep North America an innovative force?

I am a great believer in educational exchanges and different countries working together. I did some of this while at UCLA.

There are significant misunderstandings between the populations of the U.S. and Mexico. To the extent we can work together educationally, both countries will benefit.

It is in the best interest of the U.S. to help raise Mexico’s education attainment. That will help Mexico’s economy and curtail illegal immigration.

Mexico recognizes the quality of universities in Texas and the U.S. so it makes  sense to send more students here, especially for graduate education. At the same time, faculty exchanges can help Mexico universities improve.


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George W. Bush Presidential Center

PRESERVING HISTORY

GEORGE W. BUSH PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM

As the 13th presidential library, the Bush Library and Museum promotes an understanding of the American presidency, examines the specific time in history during which President Bush served, and provides access to official records and artifacts from the Bush Administration.

SHAPING THE FUTURE

THE GEORGE W. BUSH INSTITUTE

The Bush Institute is an action-oriented, nonpartisan policy organization that cultivates leaders, fosters policies to solve today’s most pressing challenges, and takes action to save and change lives. Our work is inspired by the principles that guide President and Mrs. Bush in public life.

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