College & Workforce Readiness

Effect of Chicago’s Tougher Science Policy Mixed

By Dakarai I. Aarons — March 15, 2010 5 min read

A policy change that made college-preparatory courses the default high school curriculum in the Chicago public schools increased the number of science courses that students took and passed. But it also kept some students from taking higher-level science courses and did not increase the college-going rate, according to a study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

The study, released March 15, examines the effects of increasing science coursetaking in the nation’s third-largest school district.

In 1997, the Chicago district made it mandatory that all entering freshmen from then on would take three years of science coursework, as part of a college-prep curriculum that also included expanded requirements in English, social studies, mathematics, and foreign languages. The study tracked nearly 168,000 Chicago school students in 75 schools who entered 9th grade each year from 1993 to 2001.

Most students took only one science course before the policy took effect in the 1997-98 school year; immediately afterward, all but about 10 percent of graduates had passed at least three science courses, according to the study.

That shift was a “big deal,” said Nicholas Montgomery, a senior research analyst with the University of Chicago-based consortium and a co-author of the report.

Even among dropouts, the number of science courses taken was higher after the requirements were increased.

Getting C’s and D’s

Changing Requirements

A policy requiring most Chicago students to take three years of science did not make them more likely to go to a four-year college.


SOURCE: Consortium on Chicago School Research

The increase in science coursetaking among all students, however, did not translate into higher grades.

Many students passed their classes with C’s and D’s, both before and after the policy was implemented, the researchers found. That suggests a low level of learning and engagement in the courses, they said.

Only 15 percent of students, the study says, completed three years of science with a B average or higher in those courses after the policy change. That was a modest 4-percentage-point increase compared with the period before the policy took effect.

Prior research, Mr. Montgomery said, shows that students who are truly gaining knowledge in courses earn grades of A or B.

“Before the policy, most students received C’s and D’s in their classes,” he said. “If they weren’t being successful with one or two years of science, why would we think they would be successful with three years of science, if we don’t pay attention to getting the students engaged?”

Course Sequence Affected

Barbara Eason-Watkins, the Chicago district’s chief education officer, said more study is needed to see why the students in the study were not successful. But she said the district has revamped its graduation policies and added more supports in the intervening years in an effort to ensure more students graduate and go on to college. Those supports include postsecondary coaches who work with students to match up students’ courses with the requirements of their desired colleges, she said.

“We recognize that increasing course requirements without the supports is not the right answer,” Ms. Eason-Watkins said in an interview. “We now have freshman on-track and sophomore on-pace measurements that allow us to monitor students. We are able to flag those students who are falling behind and provide additional supports.”

The new study’s findings mirror some of those from an earlier consortium study on efforts to have more students complete Algebra 1 by the end of 9th grade. That study found that although more students completed the course by 9th grade, failure rates increased, grades dropped slightly, test scores did not improve, and students were no more likely to attend college upon graduating. (“‘Algebra-for-All’ Push Found to Yield Poor Results,” Feb. 10, 2010.)

Before 1997, Chicago students were required to take only one science class to graduate, and many opted to take biology as their sole high school science course. Afterward, students had to take earth or environmental science, biology or life science, and chemistry or physics.

The selection of science courses came about for a reason: The district had far more teachers who were certified to teach earth or environmental science than to teach physics, Mr. Montgomery said. But as a result of the new policy, fewer students took both chemistry and physics, a sequence common for students who are college-bound. To take both chemistry and physics, students would have had to take four years of science to accommodate both courses and meet other requirements.

Between 1997 and 2000, the proportion of students taking both courses decreased by nearly 12 percentage points, according to the study. The district changed its science policy again in 2006, adding more flexibility so the earth- and environmental-science courses do not necessarily supplant physics.

College-Going Drops

In addition, the study found that students affected by the coursetaking policy were less likely on the whole to attend a four-year college, compared with their counterparts before the policy change. They were also less likely to remain in college.

“It seems clear to us that this was a first step. They now have students enrolled in these classes,” Mr. Montgomery said, noting the required science courses are the kinds that colleges look for on transcripts. “We think there is now room for paying attention to the types of supports that students receive so that they pass their classes, and also pay attention to engagement in instruction within the classes.”

The study shows a need for more focus on boosting the preparation and motivation of students long before they walk into a high school, said Chrys Dougherty, a senior research scientist with the Austin, Texas-based National Center for Educational Achievement.

“In order to have the policy pay off, you would not only have to make changes in high schools, but in the lower grades, because both the preparation and motivation of students are influenced not only by what happens in high schools, but what also happens to students in prekindergarten through 8th grade,” he said.

Mr. Dougherty, who was not involved with the study, said the results show more courses alone aren’t enough to increase college-going among students. College counseling is also needed, as is a focus on ensuring the courses students take are rigorous.

The consortium’s findings, he said, “seem to be one more example of the principle that isolated education reforms don’t work unless they are accompanied by a broad, long-term effort to prepare and motivate students.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week as Added H.S. Science Courses Said to Yield Mixed Effect in Chicago


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