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Differences in course requirements across endorsements appear to provide some students a more direct path to selective four-year colleges and universities than other endorsements. What can school districts in Texas do to help students and families deal with these discrepancies?

House Bill 5 has fundamentally changed public high school graduation requirements in Texas. The policy went into effect during the 2014-2015 school year and introduced endorsements, which are similar to college majors but for high school students. While endorsements intend to broaden students’ options upon graduation, the policy may also create separate paths leading to unequal college destinations.

Specifically, the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) endorsement appears to provide a more direct path to selective four-year colleges and universities than other endorsements. The distinct college paths embedded in the endorsement system may increase racial, ethnic and socioeconomic gaps in educational achievement, as previous research has shown.

What is the endorsement system?

The Texas Education Agency describes endorsements as “a related series of courses that are grouped together by interest or skill set” that “provide students with in-depth knowledge of a subject area.” The endorsement system aims to provide students opportunities to specialize in a specific area aligned with their professional goals, regardless of whether that may involve attending a university, college or trade school, or entering the workforce after high school. The five endorsements available are:

● Arts and humanities
● Business and industry
● Public services
● Multi-disciplinary

High schools and school districts have freedom to customize their high school graduation requirements and the endorsements they offer, as long as they follow state guidelines.

How do the endorsements differ?

The STEM endorsement differs from the other endorsement options because of more rigorous requirements for math and science courses. While all students completing an endorsement must graduate with four credits of math and science, students must take algebra II, biology, chemistry, and either physics or principles of technology to complete the STEM endorsement. The arts and humanities, business and industry, and public services endorsements just require biology. The multi-disciplinary endorsement requires biology and either chemistry or physics.

Differences in course requirements across endorsements may matter for college-bound students if, for example, certain colleges and universities require that students take certain courses for admissions. To investigate this possibility, a content analysis of the admissions websites of 61 Texas public and private four-year colleges and universities examined whether selective and nonselective institutions* had different math and science credit and course requirements and recommendations. (*The institutional selectivity measure used was based on SAT/ACT scores, high school class rank, high school GPA, and the percent of applicants admitted.)

The analysis revealed selective institutions such as Rice University, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University were most aligned to the STEM endorsement. Thirty-eight percent of selective colleges and universities required or recommended four credits of math or science. In contrast, only 11% of nonselective institutions had these requirements or recommendations.

Half of selective colleges and universities required or recommended students complete algebra II, chemistry or physics during high school. However, only 11% of nonselective institutions listed these requirements or recommendations on their college admissions websites. STEM was the only endorsement that required all of these courses.

Endorsements and educational inequality

The high school graduation requirements outlined in House Bill 5 allow students to focus their education on areas related to their career interests. Although the endorsement system may provide students who chose to enter the workforce after high school with technical training and job opportunities, the credit and course requirements of different endorsements may lead to distinct paths for college-bound students.

Since students choose their endorsement at the end of middle school, they may not be aware of the differences between endorsements and how they align to college admissions. One study found guidance counselors “were concerned that endorsements may derail students’ college plans” since students might worry more about completing endorsements than completing rigorous coursework that could prepare them for college. Moreover, counselors may face challenges providing information to and advising students and families about the endorsement system. Without clear information early on, students may choose an endorsement that makes the path to college more difficult or narrow.

Furthermore, if low-income students and students of color are less aware of these requirements or have fewer high school resources guiding them through the endorsement choice process, then the endorsement system may create separate educational paths, potentially increasing socioeconomic, racial and ethnic inequality in college access.

To avoid these issues, schools and districts may consider two strategies. First, they can identify ways to reach out to students and parents to share information about the differences between endorsements. They can meet with families in middle school and discuss how each endorsement may lead to different career and postsecondary paths, such as nonselective or selective college attendance.

Second, school districts may require all students, regardless of their endorsement, to complete more math and science courses. Districts like HISD require all students to take algebra II, thereby reducing some of the differences between STEM and non-STEM endorsements regarding curriculum rigor.

These potential policies and interventions may be ways in which practitioners can counter the separate college paths of the endorsement system and thereby reduce the potential for racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic inequalities in education to grow.

Brian Holzman is a research scientist at the Kinder Institute's Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC).

Bethany Lewis is a graduate research assistant at HERC.