The researchers determined the Foundation High School Program has not equally distributed benefits and has created new barriers for students.
Texas' revised graduation program, put in place nearly 10 years ago, has not fully delivered on the promise of better-preparing students for college and career success, according to a new study from Texas Tech University researchers.
The Foundation High School Program (FHSP), established in 2014 after the passage of House Bill 5 (HB 5), has overall enabled more students to take career and technical education (CTE) courses and earn two-year degrees that led to local, in-demand jobs, the study found.
But benefits from the program have not been distributed equally to students, and the system may have even introduced new barriers to postsecondary success for historically disadvantaged groups.
The findings, from a sample of 2.3 million students who graduated or were expected to graduate under the program, represent the most comprehensive view yet of the statewide effects of HB 5.
They were published Tuesday (Feb. 28) in a report titled “Bold Action for a Prosperous Future: Evaluations of the Foundation High School Program and Academic and Career Trajectories of Texas High School Graduates.” The report and related policy briefs are available for download on the Texas Tech University Libraries website.
“If I had to give HB 5 a letter grade, I would give it a C minus,” said Jacob Kirksey, an assistant professor of educational leadership policy at Texas Tech and associate director of the Center for Innovative Research in Change, Leadership and Education (CIRCLE), which undertook the study. “It gets a passing grade, so I don't think we need another massive policy change to graduation requirements. However, a lot of attention needs to be paid to the inequities that HB 5 has created – and in some cases exacerbated – for certain groups of students.”
The study was funded by a grant from Philanthropy Advocates, a Texas funders' collaborative that commissioned the research to update state policymakers during the ongoing session of the Texas Legislature.
“Key takeaways from this report show there is still work to be done to streamline college readiness standards and course-taking requirements for Texas students,” said Becky Calahan, director of Philanthropy Advocates. “We are working to ensure Texas students have clear, efficient pathways from high school to postsecondary options that lead to high-wage, high-demand career opportunities.”
HB 5 sought to enhance students' ability to customize their educational experience and more efficiently prepare for college or career success. It relaxed course requirements to allow those not interested in pursuing a four-year college education to focus on career and technical skills needed for a job after graduation.
Students also select an endorsement specializing in one of five areas of study: business and industry; arts and humanities; public service; science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); or multidisciplinary studies.
Texas Tech researchers' analysis of college admissions standards revealed meaningful student customization and increased efficiency was not achieved by HB 5.
All endorsements prepared students for entry to technical and community colleges, but only the STEM endorsement prepared students for selective four-year colleges because it is the only endorsement to require Algebra II. Most selective colleges require Algebra II as an admissions requirement.
“It appears the current system of coursework may reduce real choices for Texas students because access to all postsecondary options, regardless of what a student ultimately pursues post-high school, are limited if students do not pursue the STEM endorsement or know to take advanced coursework beyond curriculum requirements,” according to the report.
The study also uncovered troubling disparities in STEM endorsement completion along geographic and socioeconomic lines.
While most districts (82%) offered the STEM endorsement, students in rural districts were least likely to earn it. Just 14% of rural students in the class of 2020 earned the endorsement, significantly below the state average of 17%.
Suburban districts with more affluent students had much higher rates of STEM endorsement completion. Round Rock ISD, for example, had a 34% completion rate.
Rural areas showed concerning declines in Algebra II completion and four-year college enrollment as more students took advantage of the new flexibility in graduation requirements to pursue CTE opportunities and two-year degrees.
But for non-college-bound students like these, HB 5 was also a “missed opportunity” to provide a shortcut to a valuable career credential before high school graduation, Kirksey said.
The bill established new endorsement pathways, but never intentionally aligned them to existing CTE programs that lead to industry-recognized certifications. The “Bold Action” report recommends that the State Board of Education systematically make that alignment. It also recommends the creation of an industry-education partnership that would continually review the curriculum to ensure it matches workforce needs.
As it stands, only one of the five endorsements – the business and industry endorsement – appears to work as HB 5 fully intended.
Researchers found that grads with the business and industry endorsement earned better wages and were more likely to immediately find solid employment or earn an in-demand degree from a community or technical college.
The “sad part,” Kirksey said, was that positive effects of HB 5, like those seen in the business and industry endorsement, were uneven across student populations.
Rural students, students from low-income backgrounds, Black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities disproportionately missed out on benefits observed statewide from HB 5.
Focus on Pre-High School
Data showed that students need more help navigating the graduation program, Kirksey said. Endorsements are declared as early as eighth grade, but that decision can easily and severely limit postsecondary opportunities.
The study revealed that 54% of students change their endorsements before graduation.
“That's just ridiculous and it's so disruptive if you think about the goals of HB 5,” Kirksey said. “If you shift your endorsement halfway through, you've lost years of opportunities to take relevant coursework that aligns with what you want to do after high school. It's also a waste of school resources.”
The report calls for enhanced advising support and a clearer explanation of the varying definitions of college readiness and how the endorsements match up. This would reduce confusion and help extend the program's benefits to more students, Kirksey said.
Researchers found another interesting way to give all students a boost, regardless of their endorsement selection: increase completion of Algebra I in middle school.
The study showed that completing Algebra I in middle school was a strong predictor of postsecondary success. Taking that course early also gives students more course options in high school, Kirksey said.
“If you're only paying attention to high school, you're paying attention too late,” Kirksey said.
Researchers used the University of Houston Education Research Center (UH-ERC) to perform the uniquely comprehensive study of 2.3 million students. The massive UH-ERC database contains longitudinal data on Texas students all the way from early childhood through college and into the workforce. It includes student demographic characteristics, academics, progress, college success, employment and wages.