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Curricular Change in an Urban District Seen To Contrast With National Trend

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By Robert Rothman

Although strengthened graduation requirements have spurred enrollments in academic courses nationwide, mathematics enrollments in one large urban district shifted toward remedial coursework during the mid-1980's.

Both patterns were examined in two separate studies released last week by the Center for Policy Research in Education, a federally funded consortium based at Rutgers University.

The study of high-school course-taking patterns in Dade County, Fla., found that the district followed national trends in the period from 1982 to 1987, registering large increases in enrollments in science, foreign languages, computer sciences, and health. Enrollments in vocational courses, physical education, and study hall dropped sharply during the same period.

But enrollments in math, social studies, and language arts remained relatively stable during that period. And within math departments, less academically oriented courses, such as general math and informal geometry, registered gains, while classes in algebra and computer applications suffered declines.

Findings from the Dade County study, which was undertaken to provide a window to understanding how increased state requirements have affected large urban districts, contrast with those of the national study.

That study, a version of which was released in July by the Educational Testing Service, found that, nationwide, enrollments in college-preparatory math courses--and in other academic core requirements--increased substantially between 1982 and 1987.

The Dade County findings could reflect a changing student body, as well as the imposition by Florida of a basic-skills test as a graduation requirement, concluded the study, "Curricular Change in Dade County, 1982-83 to 1986-87."

The Dade study, written by Thomas L. Hanson, a former research assistant for cpre at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, replicates a similar study of California schools conducted in 1985 by Policy Analysis for California Education.

According to Mr. Hanson, the new study was aimed at determining whether policy changes aimed at strengthening academic standards had an effect on course-taking patterns in a large district.

In 1983, Mr. Hanson noted, the Florida legislature imposed graduation requirements for the first time, mandating that students take 24 credits during high school. Up to that point, Florida had no statewide graduation requirements; districts mandated between 17 and 22 credits for graduation.

At the same time, he pointed out, Florida State Universities also made entrance requirements more rigorous.

These changes apparently resulted in sharp increases in enrollments in most academic courses, the study found. The proportion of enrollments in science increased by about 52 percent between 1982-83 and 1986-87, it found, with most of the increase in the physical sciences, and enrollments in foreign languages rose by 69 percent.

At the same time, vocational enrollments dropped by 40 percent. Physical education, which was mandated by the 1983 law, also declined from 10 percent of enrollment in 1982-83 to 8 percent four years later.

The study also revealed substantial differences in course-taking patterns between high-income and low-income schools.

Foreign-language enrollments, it found, increased much more rapidly in low-income schools during the period, largely because such schools began with low language enrollments. But Spanish enrollments, the study found, increased substantially more in high-income schools.

In math, low-income schools showed greater increases in general math and geometry enrollments, while calculus enrollments increased in the high-income schools.

Copies of "Curricular Change in Dade County, 1982-83 to 1986-87" and the national study, "Course-Taking Patterns in the 1980's," are available for $7 each, prepaid, from cpre, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J. 08901.

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