Colo. Rejects More Math, Science Requisites

Citing cuts into other courses, lawmakers resist national tide.

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When Colorado lawmakers recently rejected a proposal to increase high school requirements in math and science, they were not only reasserting local school districts’ rights to set their own academic standards, they were also bucking a national trend.

States across the country have increased math and science requirements of late, arguing that those mandates are necessary to prepare students for college and high-quality jobs.

But in Colorado, the House education committee spurned such a move, voting March 22 to defeat a bill that would have required high school students to take four years of mathematics and three years of science before graduation. The panel rejected the bill by an 8-4 vote, with all eight Democrats voting against it and four Republicans in favor.

Opponents said they feared the measure would have forced schools to cut arts, foreign languages, vocational classes, and other elective offerings that help cultivate broader talents among students.

“I believe in a well-rounded education. Those words don’t seem to be in vogue anymore,” said Rep. Michael Merrifield, the Democrat who chairs the committee and a former school music teacher. “There’s no legitimate research I’ve seen that says there’s a magic bullet for creating better students with higher rates of success.”

Colorado is one of only six states that do not set high school graduation requirements for school districts, according to the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based research and policy organization. Colorado’s constitution also gives districts an unusual degree of freedom from state control in setting curriculum policy.

‘Soft Skills’ Important

University of Colorado President Hank Brown, a Republican former U.S. senator from Colorado, wrote a letter in support of the measure, which he said was penned as a private citizen, not in his official capacity with the school. Colorado State University President Larry E. Penley also wrote in support of the plan.

Graduation Requirements

States have gradually been increasing mandates for how much math and science high school students have to take to earn a traditional diploma. Several states are also phasing in tougher graduation requirements in each subject.

But it drew opposition from the Colorado Association of School Boards, whose members were concerned that the proposed mandates could encourage students who struggle academically to drop out of high school, said Jane W. Urschel, the organization’s associate executive director.

Regardless of other states’ actions, the association believes that it is just as essential for students to develop “soft skills,” in areas such as public speaking and working collaboratively with others, which would be lost as electives were cut, Ms. Urschel said.

Students are “not all engineers. They may not all want to be engineers,” Ms. Urschel said. School board members, she added, “find it offensive that there is an assumption that every kid wants to go to a four-year college, and that there are inferior dreams.”

States Demanding More

Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia mandate that students take a minimum of three years of math in high school, according to the ECS. While only two states, Alabama and South Carolina, require four years of math, 10 others are phasing in such a requirement.

Twenty states require at least three years of science in high school. One, Alabama, requires four years of study in that subject. Two others, Mississippi and Texas, are phasing in that mandate, the ECS says.

Jennifer Dounay, a policy analyst for the ECS, said she was surprised that the Colorado measure was defeated, not only because of recent state trends, but also because research shows that students who take overly easy courses as high school juniors and seniors struggle with the demands of college.

Many students “are just not getting the message about high school graduation requirements not being the same as what’s required in college,” Ms. Dounay said. A widely circulated study released by the U.S. Department of Education in 1999 showed that students who took a full lineup of academically demanding courses—including Algebra 2 and three years of laboratory science—were more likely to succeed in college. A 2006 follow-up study echoed those findings. ("States Acting to Raise Bar on H.S. Skills," Feb. 22, 2006.)

The Colorado school boards’ group favors an alternative piece of legislation that would have the state board of education set graduation requirements, but give districts flexibility in deciding whether to meet those mandates. Rep. Robert E. Witwer, a Republican from suburban Denver who sponsored the defeated measure, said it was possible it could re-emerge this legislative session. If not, he vowed to reintroduce it next year.

“We’re competing not only with other states, but with other countries for jobs,” Mr. Witwer said. “Whether [students] go into college or the workforce, these are vital skills.”

Vol. 26, Issue 31, Pages 19, 21

Published in Print: April 4, 2007, as Colo. Rejects More Math, Science Requisites
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