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Does Raising High School Grad Requirements Work?

A new study of Illinois' efforts to boost math and science graduation requirements casts doubt on the effectiveness of the policy.

Wikimedia Commons/ Mopenstein
If the goal of adding more math and science courses to high school graduation requirements is better preparing students for in-demand technical fields, states may have to do more to produce results, according to a new report looking at test scores in Illinois.

A 2005 Illinois law mandating a minimum of three years of math and two years of science for graduation made no significant impact on college-readiness exam scores, though the law might be linked to a slight improvement in college enrollment, according to the report, released by American College Testing (ACT), the company behind the ACT standardized test. 

Illinois hasn’t been alone in boosting requirements for graduation. Twenty-seven states required at least one more year of math instruction for the class of 2013 than the class of 2006, according to the Education Commission of the States. The trend isn’t quite as pronounced for science but is unmistakable. In total 42 states require at least three years of math, while 37 require at least three years of science as of 2013. 

The report used data from more than 800,000 ACT test scores from graduating classes from 2005 to 2013, with the exception of Chicago. The report also used data from the National Student Clearinghouse and the Illinois State Board of Education. 

Examining the effects of the law on students ranking high and low academically in districts that already met the new minimum and those forced to add courses, the report found about the same statistically insignificant gain on ACT scores in science and math between both types of districts and student groups. 

“The results suggest that more advanced coursework alone is not enough to improve student learning or college going,” said Scott Montgomery, ACT’s vice president of policy, advocacy, and government relations, in a statement. “A majority of students will require more intensive preparation for advanced coursework or coursework that is better adapted to their learning needs. In addition, low-performing students often need extra encouragement and supports, not just new standards, to take more advanced courses and succeed in them.”

Not surprisingly, the report did find a boost in the number of students enrolled in math and science courses. About two-thirds of lower-ranking students in both types of districts were taking at least three years of math in 2005, but by 2013 that number increased to nearly 80 percent. Even so, the authors note that a similar surge occurred in districts that already had the requirement, which could mean those districts previously weren’t enforcing their own policy.  

On the science side there was little change for higher-ranking students, but in districts that previously didn’t require two years of science 88 percent of low-ranking students took the newly required number of courses by 2013, up from 78 percent in 2005. Districts that already had the requirement saw a five-percent increase among low-ranking students. 

Another finding: college enrollment rose faster among lower-ranking students in districts that previously required fewer math courses. The enrollment rate for low-ranking students rose 2 percent in those districts and 4 percent for higher-ranking students. But the study found no positive link between raising science standards and higher college enrollment. 

Even as the U.S. is graduating more students than ever (the national rate reached 80 percent recently), education policymakers worry students aren’t prepared for college or the workforce. Different studies have shown 28 to 40 percent of first-time college students enroll in at least one remedial course, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and other reports suggest many U.S. employees lack the skills needed for the contemporary workplace.

But another study coming just weeks before the ACT released its Illinois findings further questions the value of raising graduation requirements, but for a different reason. The American Educational Research Association looked at 44 states that mandated math and science courses for graduation in the 1980s and 1990s, finding high school dropout rates increased as states required more coursework in these areas. Results varied by gender, race and ethnicity, but overall the dropout rate reached 11.41 percent when students were required to take six math and science courses, about 4 percent higher than students attending schools without a similar requirement. 

The authors argued existing research shows voluntarily offering tougher course loads leads to better outcomes for students, but making them mandatory for all students isn’t an easy win from a policy standpoint.  

“Our research suggests that many students were ill-prepared for the tougher standards, and ultimately failed to graduate,” said William F. Tate, one of the report’s authors, in a statement . “Going forward, state policymakers must understand that you can’t do math and science courses if you are not in school.”

Chris covers health care for GOVERNING. An Ohio native with an interest in education, he set out for New Orleans with Teach For America after finishing a degree at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He later covered government and politics at the Savannah Morning News and its South Carolina paper. He most recently covered North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session for the Associated Press.
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