Why is Texas Instruments Lobbying Schools to Make Algebra II Mandatory?

Does algebra II help students perform better in college? Or just forces them to buy expensive calculators?

Photo Credit: MacD

Morgan Smith of the Texas Tribune has a typically good piece up this morning about the leading role algebra II is playing in the push for testing relief. Texas requires every kid in Texas to pass the algebra II STAAR exam to graduate because of a study that found that those who do well in college took algebra II in high school. But the author of the study says Texas is misapplying his findings.

A seminal study bolstering the connection between algebra II and student achievement came from two researchers at the Educational Testing Service, Anthony Carnevale and Alice Desrochers, who followed students from 1988 to 2000 and showed that completing the course increased their chances of getting a top-tier job.

But Carnevale, now the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said that although he still believed algebra II was “pivotal,” policymakers had heard the study’s conclusions “much too loudly” as a call to increase standards.

“It is becoming a problem because we keep upping the ante and standards never get high enough and at some point nobody’s going to graduate from high school, except the two kids that are going to Harvard,” he said.

The problem is that the business lobby (which is demanding algebra II remain a requirement) is confusing cause for effect. Are kids smarter because they take algebra II, or do the smart kids take algebra II? This question goes to the heart of how I and others feel high-stakes testing seeks to change human behavior through assessments. To put it in Texana, they’re trying to make the pig heavier by weighing it a lot.

Texas Instruments has retained Sandy Kress to lobby on this issue. I’m sure they have high-minded reasons for wanting Texas schools to produce a greater supply of college-ready graduates capable of doing complicated math.

But there might be another, more prosaic reason Texas Instruments might be lobbying the legislature. When you take Algebra II, you need a Texas Instruments graphing calculator. Parents I’ve talked to tell me that schools provide them for the kids, but if you want to use them for homework you need to buy your own. The price tag that I got from the parents was around $250, but I have found them on the Internet from $125 to $371. It also appears TI offers some algebra II lessons on its website, though it’s unclear whether schools or students incur a cost for this.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that TI is offering the online lessons for free. Let’s also assume that schools already have calculators and will never need to replace them or buy new ones for a growing population, which of course is not the case. There are approximately 300,000 juniors in Texas public schools. If each one (again, an assumption) buys a calculator st $250, Texas Instruments makes $75 million a year.

We all want our kids to be held to high standards at well-funded public schools with well-trained teachers capable of helping them meet expectations. But when the business lobby is leading the opposition to testing relief, their possible motivations bear some examination.

A political consultant, writer and family man, Jason Stanford writes columns for MSNBC and the Austin American-Statesman and is nationally syndicated by Cagle Cartoons. He's also a political analyst for KTBC and coauthored "Adios Mofo: Why Rick Perry will make America miss George W. Bush.

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