School & District Management

States Take Steps to Put More Rigor Into High Schools

By Lynn Olson — March 01, 2005 7 min read
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Even before the nation’s governors convened in Washington this past weekend for a national summit on high schools, many already had proposed plans to make secondary education more rigorous.

“A high school graduate from Green Bay isn’t just competing against graduates from Appleton and Oshkosh,” Gov. James E. Doyle of Wisconsin said in his Jan. 12 State of the State Address. “She’s competing against graduates from all over the world.”

Noting that current state graduation requirements do not even meet the basic standards for admission to the University of Wisconsin, Gov. Doyle, a Democrat, proposed legislation requiring a third year of mathematics and science for all the state’s public school students.

Wisconsin is hardly alone.

“The spotlight is definitely on high schools,” said Naomi Housman, the director of the Washington-based National High School Alliance. Policymakers have gotten the message “that everybody needs additional learning beyond high school, and that a high school diploma has to be meaningful,” she said.

More than half of the governors’ state of the state addresses targeted high school improvement, according to the National Governors Association. Hoping to get more students ready for college and prepared for employment, legislators in at least 12 states have introduced bills to make high schools more rigorous. Their proposals range from prescribing a minimum course of study to offering accelerated graduation options and “early-college high school” programs.

In Indiana, the state school board last month tightened its graduation requirements for four types of diplomas: a minimum high school diploma, the “Core 40” diploma, and the Core 40 diploma with academic or technical honors. A bill now before the legislature would go further and make the Core 40 requirements the default option for all students. Those requirements include three years of math through Algebra 2, as well as three years of science, including biology and chemistry or physics.

“We really need to look into the future and see where we need to be,” said Suellen Reed, the state superintendent of education. “We very clearly read that the future requires a lot more than what we’ve required before.”

Kansas also is boosting its high school graduation requirements, effective July 1, to include an extra year each of math, science, and fine arts. The new requirements are almost completely aligned with the state’s college admissions standards, said Alexa E. Posny, an assistant commissioner of education, and with the college-preparatory core recommended by the ACT admissions-test program.

Gov. James E. Doyle of Wisconsin, speaking Feb. 10 at Lincoln Elementary School in Madison, Wis., says higher graduation standards will help make students more competitive in a global job market.

“When we only had two math credits, we had kids who may not have taken any math after their freshman year,” she said.

Elsewhere, the Iowa Learns Council, formed by Gov. Tom Vilsack in 2003 to increase pre-K-16 coordination, has set a goal of having at least 90 percent of high school graduates complete at least two years of college. In his Jan. 11 State of the State Address, the Democratic governor endorsed the council’s recommendations for a more rigorous and relevant high school experience, tougher graduation standards, and a tighter relationship between high schools and higher education.

While local districts set graduation requirements in Iowa, Mr. Vilsack urged districts to make those standards more challenging. He noted that in most Iowa high schools, students can graduate with only two years of math and two years of science.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, is supporting legislation that would require schools to notify parents if their high school children failed to register for a college-preparatory curriculum. “The parents could then ensure that their children are enrolled in the right curriculum,” Gov. Owens said in his State of the State Address in January.

A ‘Win-Win’ Proposal

In Oklahoma, Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, recommended requiring a third year of math to graduate from high school in his Feb. 7 State of the State speech.

“In our high schools, we will promote a college-bound curriculum and phase in end-of-course testing that demands results from our students,” he said. “We’ll require three years of high school math, and we’ll make the senior year count by encouraging more of our students to attend college. We will do that by offering to pay full tuition costs for up to six hours of college credit per semester for our high school seniors.”

Mississippi isn’t offering to pay college tuition, but it is working on dual-credit articulation agreements between its state board of education, the state board for community and junior colleges, and the state board for institutions of higher learning. The agreements would ensure that capable students could take college courses in high school and receive both high school and college credit.

See Also

See a related story from this issue,

Plan Offered on U.S. Aid for High Schools

“It’s just a win-win,” said Jason S. Dean, the education policy adviser to GOP Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi. “It’s a win for the students, obviously. It’s a win for the colleges because it’s a great recruitment tool. It’s a win for the parents, for financial reasons. And it’s a win for the state.”

As part of the proposed Upgrade Education Reform Act of 2005, the governor also wants to require each of the state’s 152 districts to offer at least one Advanced Placement course in each of the four core subjects of English, math, science, and social studies. The state is banking on federal grant money to help subsidize the costs of taking AP exams for students who need financial help.

“The research is pretty compelling about what a rigorous curriculum will do for a student,” Mr. Dean said. “It gets them to college, then it gets them to stay, and probably from a state perspective, one of the most important things is it gets them out earlier.”

In Georgia, the new Georgia Virtual High School will give students statewide access to more than 60 online courses by this summer, including more than 15 AP courses and preparation for college-admissions exams, GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue said in his State of the State Address on Jan. 12.

On Feb. 18, the state launched Education Go Get It, a statewide initiative to increase Georgia’s high school graduation and college-enrollment rates. The partnership of community-based nonprofits, private-sector companies, government agencies, and institutions of higher education is believed to be the largest such partnership in the state’s history.

More Testing Mulled

Massachusetts, which already requires high school students to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System in math and English to graduate, is now considering upping those requirements.

Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, wants to require that students also pass a science exam in order to graduate. “Massachusetts has a choice,” he told the state board of education in January. “We can provide our kids with a first-rate science education today, or we can learn to live with a second-rate economy tomorrow.”

The governor has asked the state board of education to require students to pass one of four discipline-specific MCAS science tests—in biology, chemistry, physics, or technology and engineering—to earn a diploma. High school students are required to take a science exam, beginning in 2006, but they won’t be required to pass it to earn a diploma until approved by the board.

In addition, Mass Insight Education, a Boston-based nonprofit group that focuses on improving student achievement in the state’s public schools, has recommended raising the passing score on each section of the MCAS required to graduate from 220 to 230 by 2010, and to 240 by 2014, or the equivalent of “proficient.” The tests are scored on a scale from 200 to 280.

Heidi Perlman, a spokeswoman for the state department of education, said that the Massachusetts education reform law enacted in 1993 specified that students eventually would have to demonstrate competence in subjects beyond math and English to earn a diploma. While nothing has been decided, she said, the proposal is to pilot the science tests over the next few years and make them a diploma requirement for the class of 2010.

In contrast, Ms. Perlman said, state Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll isn’t certain that it’s the right time to raise the passing score required to earn a diploma. “He sees that maybe we should think about raising it, but he’s not ready to do it right now,” she said, “and he’s definitely not ready to raise it to proficient.”

Reversing Course?

Indeed, while it’s easy to talk about raising standards, many states that have sought to toughen graduation requirements and high school exit tests in the past have backed off, typically in the face of high failure rates and opposition from parents. (“States Debate Exam Policies for Diplomas,” May 14, 2003.)

In Arizona, a Senate committee voted Feb. 16 to drop a policy that required students, beginning with the class of 2006, to pass the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS test, to graduate. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Thayer Verschoor, wants to keep the test as a diagnostic tool. The Senate education committee also voted to endorse a bill to permit special education students to graduate even if they failed the AIMS, as long as they passed their high school classes.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said in a legal opinion last month that districts can exempt special education students from passing the exam to earn a diploma, based on their individualized education plans, which are required under federal law.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as States Take Steps to Put More Rigor Into High Schools


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