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Published in Print: May 10, 2006, as Rules for New College-Aid Program Outlined

Rules for New College-Aid Program Outlined

Education Dept. stresses that it will not itself define a rigorous H.S. curriculum.

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High schools may use a variety of methods to provide a “rigorous” curriculum that would allow their low-income graduates to qualify for a new federal college-grant program, the Department of Education announced last week.

Students who complete such a curriculum may be eligible to tap into a $790 million fund; an estimated 500,000 students will qualify for the aid in the 2006-07 academic year. The Academic Competitiveness Grants for college freshmen and sophomores and the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent, or SMART, grant program for juniors and seniors are meant to encourage students to pursue studies in mathematics, science, and certain foreign languages.

When the five-year, $4.5 billion program was passed by Congress in February, tucked inside the Deficit Reduction Act, lawmakers said the U.S. secretary of education should decide just what constituted a rigorous high school program of study. That provision hit a nerve with the states, which didn’t want the federal government determining the curricula of their high schools. ("Bill Pushes ‘Rigorous’ Curricula," Feb. 1, 2006.)

The Education Department’s May 2 announcement of a broad number of ways that high schools could provide a rigorous course of study allowing students to meet the criteria for the grant was welcome news to those who had feared that Washington’s reach into the classroom was expanding too far.

“One does have to admire and applaud the department for coming up with something so broad and inclusive that it really does give states many different ways to comply,” said David L. Shreve, a lobbyist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, located in Denver. “We’re tickled to death that they were responsive to this.”

Grant Eligibility

The Department of Education last week announced interim rules for Academic Competitiveness Grants to help pay for college. The law requires college freshmen and sophomores seeking the grants to have taken a “rigorous” high school program of study. Students can meet the requirement for rigor by:

■ Receiving an advanced or honors high school diploma, available in at least 20 states.
■ Completing the requirements of the State Scholars Initiative, available in at least 14 states, or similar requirements. The initiative requires that high school students take four years of English, three years each of mathematics, science, and social studies, and one year of a foreign language.
■Taking at least two Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses and passing the exams for the courses.

Note: States may also submit their own proposals to define a rigorous secondary school program, subject to approval by the Education Department.

Thomas W. Luce III, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, sketched out several programs of study in a conference call with reporters last week that would constitute a rigorous program for public, private, or charter high school students, as well as those who have been home-schooled.

Students would qualify for the grants if they received advanced or honors diplomas from their states. About 20 states have such programs, Mr. Luce said. Students would also qualify if they have completed the State Scholars Initiative program, available in 14 states this year, or have completed similar coursework. The State Scholars program requires that students take four years of English, three years of math, science, and social studies, and one year of a foreign language.

Also, students who have taken two Advanced Placement or two International Baccalaureate classes and passed the exams for such courses would qualify.

Temporary Guidelines

States may submit their own plans to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings for consideration, Mr. Luce said. Those plans are due June 1 and would be evaluated within a month of the deadline, he added.

“We would hope this program would serve as a strong incentive and pressure would build so that every high school afforded its students the opportunity for this,” Mr. Luce said.

To qualify for the grants, students must first be eligible for federal Pell Grants for students from needy families. Academic Competitiveness Grants will provide as much as $750 a year to freshmen and as much as $1,300 a year to sophomores who have completed a rigorous high school program. Sophomores must have had at least a 3.0 grade point average during the first year in college to qualify for the aid.

SMART Grants will provide up to $4,000 a year to juniors and seniors in four-year colleges who are pursuing a major in math, science, technology, engineering, or a foreign language, such as Arabic, deemed “critical” by the federal government. Students must also maintain at least a 3.0 GPA.

The guidelines announced last week are only temporary. Because of a tight deadline required by the legislation, Education Department officials said the rules announced May 2 would be in place for only the 2006-07 and 2007-08 academic years. During that time, department officials said, they will develop more-stringent requirements.

“Two years from now, we’ll be pushing for even more-rigorous standards, so that states will have time to implement more-rigorous programs, and students will know that more-rigorous courses of study will be required in the future for these funds,” Mr. Luce said.

Lost Opportunities?

Some observers say that even with broad latitude for defining a rigorous curriculum, many students who most need the Academic Competitiveness Grants won’t qualify for them.

“I don’t have anything against rewarding students or encouraging them to complete a rigorous curriculum, but the ugly reality is that there are many high schools in this country that do not offer a rigorous curriculum,” said Dianne M. Piché, the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington-based advocacy group. “What about those students?”

Mr. Luce acknowledged that there would be some students whose schools would not offer such a curriculum, and that those students would not be able to obtain the grants. But he said he hoped that with the expansive criteria, many students would qualify.

“We can’t know that every single student will have had the opportunity to take these courses,” he said, “but we believe we have set up enough options that it’s likely that the vast number of students certainly would have had the opportunity.”

Vol. 25, Issue 36, Pages 25-26

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