College-prep for all no guarantee of higher achievement

August 26, 2010

Do more rigorous courses raise student achievement? Not necessarily,
according to a study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. A new policy brief from the Consortium, in effect, sounds a warning
about the national push for tougher learning standards for all students.
Do more rigorous courses raise student achievement? Not necessarily, according to a study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

A new policy brief from the Consortium, in effect, sounds a warning about the national push for tougher learning standards for all students.

In the study “College Prep for All?” the Consortium found that Chicago’s mandatory college-prep curriculum failed to raise the achievement of high school students and in some cases, surprisingly, hindered students with stronger skills.

Another study, on the district’s policy instituting double periods of Algebra 1 for 9th-graders with low skills, came to more promising findings: Students across the skill spectrum boosted their math scores.

The college-prep report examines what happened with students as a result of the Chicago Public Schools’ decision in 1997 to scrap remedial courses and institute a college-prep curriculum for all high school students, a move that put Chicago on the leading edge of a national movement. To graduate, CPS students would have to take four years of specific, literature-based English courses; three years of math; three years of lab science, including biology, earth or environmental science, and chemistry or physics; and three years of social science, including U.S. and world history,  plus an elective.

For the first report, Consortium researchers analyzed the impact on achievement of English 1 and Algebra 1, both taken in 9th grade.

The results were not good. Comparing achievement before and after 1997, the Consortium found flat test scores, more absenteeism, lower grades, and more course failures.

Absences rose most sharply, in fact, for students with stronger skills—perhaps because these students became disengaged with classes as teachers began to “teach to the middle.”

Students were also no more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, take higher-level math beyond Algebra II, or take a rigorous 4-year sequence of science courses that included both chemistry and physics.

There was a bright spot, though. Racial disparities in course enrollment—with minority students stuck in remedial courses while white students took challenging classes—virtually disappeared, since all students had to take the same curricula.

It might seem obvious that just changing the curriculum will not spark improvement. But that seems to be the mindset in the current push for more rigor, notes Christopher Mazzeo, a researcher at the Consortium who worked on both reports.

For efforts like the Common Core State Standards Initiative to have any lasting impact, teachers will need more training, and struggling students will need lots of support.

“Clearly you can pass a policy and get kids to take more classes. But teachers need help to teach kids across the spectrum,” Mazzeo says. “So far, though, it’s not clear that there is sufficient attention to increasing this capacity to improve teaching and learning.”

The report is not the first to point out the difficulty of raising high school achievement in Chicago. A 2009 report by SRI International threw cold water on the High School Transformation Project, launched by then-CEO Arne Duncan, which failed to make inroads because of poor teaching and student absenteeism.

In 2003, CPS began requiring all incoming freshmen with low math test scores to take a double period of Algebra I, one of the required math courses under the college-prep curriculum.

The results were promising for this initiative.

The Consortium found that test scores went up, both for below-average students in the double-period classes and for higher-level students in regular classes.

“Something about homogeneous grouping helped teachers target their work to students,” Mazzeo says. After all, it’s easier to teach a class when all the students are at a similar level of skill, whether the level is high or low.

Still, he emphasizes that the findings are not an argument for a return to the practice of “tracking” lower-level students into easier courses. Instead, they bolster the argument that all students can learn rigorous content, if teachers have the right training and students get enough support.

Coincidentally, a national Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll released this week found that the public already gets that. A majority of those surveyed said improving teacher quality—including providing training on best practices—should be the nation’s top education priority.