Questions Raised on Efficacy of Stiffer Math, Science Graduation Requisites

By Lynn Olson — February 15, 1989 8 min read

This decade’s raised high-school graduation requirements have primarily affected low- and middle-achieving students, who are taking more science and mathematics courses as a result, a new study has found.

But the report by the Center for Policy Research in Education, a federally funded research consortium, questions whether the new courses are as challenging or as rigorous as they could be.

Most of the added classes are for noncollege-bound students, it found, and are concentrated at the remedial, general, or basic level.

Thus, the report argues, they do little to rectify the stratified curriculum that already exists in most high schools.

“The problem is that the extra courses may not fulfill the reform objectives very well,” said William H. Clune, Voss-Bascom Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin Law School and primary author of the report.

“Insofar as the reformers had educational objectives, they intended to produce a more uniform academic curriculum and raise student achievement,” Mr. Clune said. “And the problem is that a couple of extra low-level courses doesn’t move very far in that direction.”

A Popular Reform

The report, by Mr. Clune and two associates--Paula White and Janice Patterson--provides the first indepth study of how selected schools across the country have carried out mandates to increase academic requirements.

State mandates on the number of required “core” courses have been the most common reform of the 1980’s.

Since the beginning of the decade, 45 states have either specified for the first time, or increased, the total number of courses required for high-school graduation.

Of those states, 42 increased course requirements for math or science, or both. At least 18 added language-arts requirements; and about half raised social-studies requirements.

The report focused on changes in graduation requirements in six states--Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. It also studied a select number of schools and districts in each state, except Minnesota.

In each instance, school administrators, teachers, school-board members, union leaders, and parent representatives were asked for their views on the reforms.

In addition, the study examined actual changes in course offerings in four states--Arizona, California, Florida, and Pennsylvania.

Bypassed High Achievers

In general, the report found, affluent schools and districts and college-bound students were not affected by the reforms, because they already met or exceeded the new curriculum requirements.

Instead, the reforms were felt most by noncollege-bound students: those traditionally considered low- or middle-achievers.

Approximately 27 percent of these students took an extra math course, and 34 percent an extra science course, as a result of the reforms, the study found. Many also took a new or added course in social studies.

Given the relatively low number of math and science courses previously taken by such students, the study noted, the increases represent a ''potentially significant increment of educational content.”

But it cautioned that most of the new math courses were focused on a relatively low level of skills, such as general math, remedial math, consumer math, algebra, geometry, and math applications.

And although science courses were added in such traditional subjects as physical science, chemistry, physics, and biology, the additions also tended to be at the “basic” level.

The ‘Major Casualty’

Respondents complained that the new requirements substantially reduced the number of courses that students took in home economics, industrial arts, physical education, vocational education, business, psychology, and the performing arts.

“Vocational courses were the major casualty of the increased academic coursetaking,” Mr. Clune said. “We saw evidence that the new requirements made it difficult to complete logical, and even required, sequences of vocational courses.”

“A Nation at Risk, the so-called bible of the reform movement, spoke of eliminating weak academic courses in favor of higher-quality academic courses and vocational courses,” he added. “In some cases, the real impact [of these reforms] may have been the reverse. You got low-quality academic courses replacing higher-quality vocational ones. But we don’t have the precise data to support that.”

Increased Dropout Rate?

Respondents also worried that the increased standards would push marginal students out of school, although they admitted that they lacked data to support that view.

The report itself cited previous research findings linking higher standards to lower mean dropout rates, and indicating that graduation rates are improving slightly nationwide.

A longitudinal study of students in Dade County, Fla., for example, found a significant decline in the dropout rate during the same period that students’ academic course load was rising.

“I actually can’t explain the discrepancy between school-level perceptions of dropout problems as a result of these higher standards and the lack of objective data,” Mr. Clune said.

“It’s possible that we’ll see the [dropout] rates go up later on because there’s been some sort of lag,” he said. “Also, school people may have a bias toward seeing the problems of higher standards and not seeing the benefits, such as increased motivation for students resulting from more interesting material. There is research supporting that type of effect.”

‘Watered Down’ Courses

The study did not gather systematic data on the actual content of the new courses. But it did find scattered evidence of attempts to “water down” the curriculum.

The evidence included shortened class periods, courses with repetitious material, science “labs” held in regular classrooms, and some inadequately qualified teachers.

In some instances, students were also steered toward less-demanding classes. In two Florida districts, for example, high-school counselors reported advising students in danger of failing to take easier courses in order to meet the new standards. The counselors said that in the past they had advised such students to take more-challenging classes in order to stretch themselves.

In two of four Pennsylvania districts studied, students were allowed to substitute vocational courses for their academic requirements. One district was considering substituting courses like “nursing math, baking math, and carpentry math.”

“Lacking systematic data, we cannot tell how common such practices were,” the study noted. “But there are deeper reasons for doubting that the new courses were the best possible.”

First, it said, schools typically offer low- and middle-achieving students “dull, factual, repetitive material,” and there was no reason to believe that most schools changed their tactics in adding the new courses.

Second, designing the right kinds of academic courses for such students is extremely difficult, the report argued. But states focused almost no attention on the need to upgrade instruction at the same time that they increased course requirements.

Moreover, state mandates included almost no provisions for technical assistance to either districts or schools.

California offered the one exception in the study. The state specifically created “bridge” courses that would allow students to upgrade their skills and make the transition from the general to the academic track.

‘Streamlined Core Curriculum’

In general, Mr. Clune concluded, the reforms produced mixed results: Schools added the best courses they could manage for low- and middle-achieving students on short notice. But they fell “far short” of providing real academic rigor.

He suggested that to attain the latter goal, policymakers would have to take a serious look at the content of academic courses, and not just their labels.

“At a certain level of requirements, you begin to get high costs and unclear benefits,” he said. “States with very high graduation requirements may be choosing quantity over quality. At some point, students lose all of their electives and the opportunity to take vocational courses. Or they spend a lot of time retaking courses they have failed.’'

Instead of adding more and more course requirements, Mr. Clune advised, states should pare back the number of credits required for graduation and work to strengthen the content of the courses they do require.

In particular, he advocated the creation of a “streamlined core curriculum” for all students. Within that curriculum, he said, states should create a very specific set of learning objectives that focus on higher-order skills and that are as “demanding as possible” for everyone.

“Ways must be found to identify the most important part of the core curriculum and to make sure students reach at least that level,” according to the report. “States, districts, and schools need to design workable paths from remedial and weak courses to more demanding ones.”

New Look at Voc. Ed.

Mr. Clune also suggested that the role of vocational education “deserves a second look.” It can be a “superior method” of introducing students to both basic and higher-order academic skills, he said, and can also be “an excellent means of motivating some students to stay in school.”

The Center for Policy Research in Education is a federally funded research consortium that includes Rutgers University, Michigan State University, Stanford University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The opinions expressed in the report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of cpre’s institutional partners.

Copies of the report may be obtained for $5 each prepaid, including postage and handling, from the Center for Policy Research in Education, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Douglass Campus, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, N.J. 08901, Attention: Publications. Discounts for bulk orders are available on request.

A version of this article appeared in the February 15, 1989 edition of Education Week as Questions Raised on Efficacy of Stiffer Math, Science Graduation Requisites