Tougher science requirement has little impact on achievement

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As part of a larger effort to institute more rigorous graduation requirements, in 1997 CPS passed a policy requiring students to take three years of science instead of just one year.

 

But for the most part, the increased coursework did little to raise science achievement overall, according to a study released today by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. As part of a larger effort to institute more rigorous graduation requirements, in 1997 CPS passed a policy requiring students to take three years of science instead of just one year.

 

But for the most part, the increased coursework did little to raise science achievement overall, according to a study released today by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

 

The impetus behind the district’s change was twofold: a specific concern that CPS graduates were not taking courses that would prepare them for college, and a general worry that students in the United States lag behind other nations in math and science achievement. Nationally, these concerns are still in the news. Over the last year, President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have underscored the need for rigorous math and science curricula that will help make American students competitive in an increasingly technological global economy. And Duncan has touted Chicago’s comprehensive science curriculum as a model for the country.

 

But the Consortium study shows that creating a policy is only the first step.

 

Senior Researcher Nicholas Montgomery notes one important change that affected all students: More science classes throughout every high school. “Regardless of race or class, we did see equity improve,” Montgomery says.

 

However, equity broke down in terms of outcomes. Good students—those with B averages or better—were more likely to take three years of science, do well in those classes and earn higher test scores in science. But only 19 percent of students were in this category.

 

The rest of the students had C averages or below. And while they were more likely to take three science classes, they didn’t do well in them.

 

Officials hoped that students would become more engaged in classes, because of the hands-on nature of science instruction, but that hope didn’t pan out, Montgomery says. Instead, five out of six of these students earned only C’s or D’s.

 

The policy also did not increase enrollment in challenging science classes.

 

The number of students taking environmental science (the entry-level science class) increased, while the number of students taking both physics and chemistry decreased.

 

Coursework in advanced science, such as Advanced Placement or higher-level physics, did not increase. Students completing both physics and chemistry, or advanced courses, score higher on the science portion of the ACT.

 

And surprisingly, there were no improvement in college outcomes. Even though more students would have the courses necessary to go to college, college enrollment did not increase and students were no more likely to stay in college for at least two years.

 

Montgomery notes that larger problems throughout CPS had an impact. Since roughly 50 percent of students drop out of high school, only a small proportion of students were exposed to all three years of science. Also, many students enter high school with low reading and math levels, which might make it difficult for them to do well in high-level science classes. In addition, teachers with the qualifications to teach advanced courses are in short supply. 

 

This study is the first of two to be released by the Consortium on the district’s effort to make its high school curricula more challenging so that students are prepared for college.