College-prep-for-all policy in Chicago shows little pain–and little gain

Woman with a study groupMore than 10 years after Chicago Public Schools raised the academic bar for all high school students by dropping remedial classes and adopting a “college-prep-for-all” policy, a study involving more than 200,000 students finds few of the hoped-for benefits for low achievers.

For 9th-graders who took Algebra I instead of remedial math, math grades declined and failure rates increased, report researchers from the Consortium on Chicago School Research(CCSR) at the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan.

Students were no more likely to take an advanced math course beyond Algebra II and were no more likely to graduate from high school or to attend college.

Overall, the researchers conclude that the general effect of college-prep-for-all was that it made little to no difference.

Why so little impact?

Why weren’t there better academic outcomes from a policy that improved access to educational opportunities for all students?

The researchers, led by Elaine Allensworth at the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, speculate that one reason may be that while there were dramatic changes in what was taught, there may not have been substantial changes in the process of instruction. “Teachers who had taught remedial courses were suddenly required to teach college-prep courses,” they write.

When classes are detracked, several issues arise from the more heterogeneous mix of students. It is more difficult for teachers to teach to the middle of the class. Also, students with the same ability levels have lower grades when in classes with higher-ability peers and there may be the possibility of negative effects on students’ self-esteem.

No increase in dropouts

On the positive side, there was no evidence that the more challenging curriculum pushed more students to drop out. Dropout rates in the district approach 50%, and there was some concern that requiring all students to take college-prep courses rather than accumulating credits through remedial coursework could worsen the dropout rate, the study says.

Chicago Public Schools, the 3rd largest district in the U.S., was at the forefront of a national movement calling for rigorous high school course requirements. New York, Texas and 11 other states now require a college-prep curriculum, and 16 more states plan to adopt such requirements in the near future. Chicago Public Schools mandated that all students enroll in a college-prep curriculum in 1997.

For this study, researchers followed outcomes for 11 cohorts of students that entered their freshman years from 1994-2004. The cohorts range in size from 21,587 students in 1997 to 26,197 students in 2004.

The researchers also found that the universal curriculum did remove educational barriers but the effect on learning and engagement seemed neutral and sometimes negative.

“Students in all ability groups were more likely to earn credit in Algebra I by the end of ninth grade with the policy,” the study says. “However, beyond gaining course credit, there were no observable benefits to enrolling in Algebra I instead of remedial math. Moreover, there were some adverse consequences for both low- and average-ability students.”

Absenteeism actually increased among average- and high-ability students. There was no effect on math test scores and no benefits or adverse consequences for students enrolling in English I instead of remedial English. Neither English GPA nor reading test scores were affected.

Weak academic skills are not the only reason some students may have had difficulty handling high-level content. It could be that these courses are beyond the capability of some students or that the students don’t see these courses as useful for their futures and don’t want to work hard to master them.

“The short-term findings suggest that lower-ability students are more likely to struggle in college-prep classes, but the long-term findings do not show adverse effects (even if they also show few benefits). Thus, the policy generally had a null effect–no gains, but no costs.”

The authors conclude that universal high-level coursework may need to be accompanied by other profound changes in the educational system, with greater attention to instruction, supporting students the professional community and instructional leadership.

“College Preparatory Curriculum for All: Consequences of Ninth-Grade Course Taking in Algebra and English on Academic Outcomes in Chicago,” by Elaine Allensworth, Takako Nomi et al., Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, December 2008.

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