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Schools Raise Bar on Course Standards

Ohanian Comment: Here's the subhead for this article: In the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act, schools are making students take more advanced courses in English, math, science and social studies. There is a rosy view of students doing better because of this "raised bar." There's no mention of the number of students who are pushed out by that same bar.

Moments after the bell rang in Lawrence Buhay's algebra class at Maine East High School, he threw out a problem bristling with x's, y's and exponents to his 18 students, most of them freshmen needing extra help with math.

"As ugly as that looks, and I know it's ugly, I want you to look at it like it's a very easy fraction," the teacher said, only to be met by a skeptical silence.

A year ago, kids like these would have been enrolled in a less-challenging pre-algebra class, one of only two years of math needed for a diploma.

But that was before Maine East joined a growing number of Illinois high schools toughening graduation requirements.

Prompted by the stern mandates of the No Child Left Behind law, schools are compelling students to take more classes in the core areas of English, math, science and social studies.

Mundelein's District 120 is requiring a third year of both science and math. Freshmen in Maine East's District 207 will have to take extra courses in math, science and social studies. And Villa Park's District 88 is thinking about one additional class in each of the four core subjects.

In some cases, officials also are making these courses more rigorous, hoping to push low-achieving kids to better test scores and brighter futures.

"To be an apprentice sheet metal worker, carpenter or tool and die worker, high [level] math skills are as important as if you're going to college," said Supt. Roger Thornton of Palatine-based District 211, which next year will increase its math requirement to three years from two.

But some school districts that have boosted their prerequisites are seeing mixed results. Average test scores have gone up at Bolingbrook High School, whose last two graduating classes have taken extra English, math and science courses, but kids at the tail end of the academic spectrum still are struggling.

"For those lower-level, at-risk students, [passing the additional classes] can be very difficult to accomplish," said math department chairwoman Kathie Mogy.

For 20 years, Illinois has required high school students to take three years of language arts classes, two years of social studies, two years of math--one of which can be a computer course--and one year of science.

That's below the standard many educators favor--four years of English and three years of math, science and social studies. The Iowa-based testing organization ACT says its research indicates that more demanding curriculum yields better performance in college and job-training programs.

"One finding was that that was true regardless of GPA," said Jon Erickson, ACT's vice president of educational services. "The mere exposure to those courses pays dividends."

The Illinois State Board of Education last year proposed mandating one additional class in math and science by 2009. That would require a change in the law, however, and a board spokesman said no legislation is pending in the General Assembly.

Administrators say the schedules of high-achieving students already are crammed with core academic courses. Increasing the minimum standard is meant to pull up the lower-achieving end of the student body--a task made more urgent by No Child Left Behind.

The federal law judges schools not just by their overall test scores, but by the scores of sub-groups such as low-income kids, minorities and students with learning disabilities. If one sub-group doesn't measure up, the school can be cited as failing.

That has increased the pressure to reach at-risk kids, and some districts think a more challenging slate of classes might help.

"We have years and years of data that show kids who take the core curriculum do better," said Assistant Supt. Audrey Haugan of District 88 in Villa Park, which is considering tougher requirements. "With that knowledge, why would we not address that?"

One early adopter of the more thorough standards was Chicago Public Schools. Starting in 1997, students had to take an additional year of math and two additional years of science. The courses also had to cover specific areas, from geometry to biology, that state universities expect of incoming freshmen.

The effect on student performance has been difficult to gauge. The state began testing upperclassmen in 2001, leaving little comparable data for kids in their latter years of high school.

However, the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research found that scores on a long-standing test for freshmen improved after the curriculum change, and that graduation rates went up.

"It seems like higher standards did increase achievement," said Elaine Allensworth, the consortium's associate director.

Many in the Chicago system once worried that tougher requirements would prompt steep increases in dropouts, but that hasn't happened, said administrator Edward Klunk. The rate, depending on how it is calculated, has fluctuated up and down only about 2.5 percent since 1995.

But the fear of provoking dropouts exists elsewhere and was part of the reason why Hinsdale Township District 86 last year chose not to require extra math and science classes.

Sue Pippen, math department chairwoman at Hinsdale South High School, said teachers around the state had told her that their dropout problems increased with more mandatory classes.

Because 95 percent of Hinsdale kids move on to higher education, the district decided to let counselors steer the remaining handful of students to suitable courses.

"We would rather make it a guidance issue than a requirement that would be punitive," Pippen said.

Many school districts adding mandatory classes also are changing what they teach and how they teach it, particularly in math.

Wheaton's District 200 now requires students to take algebra and geometry during their three years of math. Before officials stiffened the curriculum in 2003, kids could have avoided geometry, never entering the world of angles, planes and polygons that is part of the statewide math test.

"There was a definite focus that the increased graduation requirements would not just translate into additional seat time, but into additional rigor and achievement," said Margo Sorrick, the district's assistant superintendent for educational services.

District 211 will use 8th-grade test data to figure out which incoming freshmen might have trouble with math. Those kids will have to take a six-week summer class, and anyone still having trouble will get a double dose of math during his first year.

Maine Township District 207 created an algebra course for struggling 9th graders that lasts for 69 minutes instead of 44.

That allows students more time to review the previous day's work.

And realistically speaking, said Buhay, it gives kids who don't do their homework an extra opportunity to let the lesson sink in.

The intimidating equation he tossed at his students to open class seemed to support the theory. The concept tripped up some, as it had the previous day, but after five more examples most appeared to understand.

"I guess it's more work for us. The other kids have more free periods," said 14-year-old Gerald Gutierrez of Niles. "But it's OK. It'll pay off for college."

— John Keilman
Chicago Tribune


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