College-prep science classes for all in Chicago public schools was detrimental to high achievers

Schoolchildren and teacher in science classA universal curriculum is supposed to work like the rising tide that lifts all boats. But a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) policy that requires all high school students to take 3 years of science hasn’t resulted in increased science learning and achievement for most students, says a new study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. In fact, the policy even appears to have had a negative impact on higher achieving students.

“The outcome of the CPS experiment seems to corroborate other recent research showing it is extremely difficult to detrack students without also lowering the achievement of the strongest students,” the report says.

Effects on B students

Predictably, the new detracking policy did lead  to students taking a greater number of science courses. And, increasing the graduation requirements did not lead to an increase in the dropout rate as feared. But for students who earned B grades in their science classes, the report says there was actually a decline in college-going rates. Because of the design of the requirements, fewer high school students also took both chemistry and physics in high school.

Two years prior to the policy, 65% of graduates with a B average or higher in 3 years of science attended college. The rate eventually fell to as low as 58% after the policy took effect.

“Placing students with little chance of going to college with students who had either a marginal or good chance of attending college might have had a negative effect on college-going.”

Besides a negative peer effect on B students,  another possible explanation is that high achievers no longer distinguished themselves with teachers simply because they were taking more years of science, the researchers write. As a result, upper-level science teachers might have given them less attention and encouragement to attend college, the report says.

168,000 students in study population

The Consortium study compared student science achievement before and after the 1997 policy took effect. The study population included 167,969 CPS students in 75 schools who entered 9th grade from 1993 to 2001. With about half of CPS students not going on to graduate, the researchers created separate statistical models for 2 groups of students–all students and students who graduated.

An unintended consequence of the policy was that fewer students took both physics and chemistry.  Only 53 CPS teachers were certified to teach physics before the policy change took effect, too few to accommodate a universal physics mandate, according to the report. So students were only required to take physics or chemistry.

Students had to take 3 courses from the following choices:

  1. earth and space or environmental science
  2. biology or life science
  3. chemistry or physics

For students to take both chemistry and physics they had to take 4 years of science. CPS decided to make a course in earth, space or environmental science a requirement because of staffing considerations and also because some CPS officials thought this sequence of courses would be of greater use to most students than a specialized combination of chemistry and physics.

CPS had 116 teachers who were certified to teach general science and 249 who were certified to teach biology. By state law, general science teachers were allowed to teach earth or environmental science and biology teachers were allowed to teach environmental science.
The policy touched off a trend of fewer students taking both courses. The year before the new graduation requirements, 29% of graduates took both chemistry and physics. That figure dropped to 20% for the 1998 cohort and to 12% for the 2001 cohort, controlling for student and school characteristics.

“The trend is potentially troubling,” the report says.  “National surveys of coursework show there is a tacit hierarchy in the types of science courses that students take. Stronger students tend to take chemistry or physics, and the strongest students take both.”

Requirements only first step

Requiring more science coursework for students is only a first step, the researchers write.  For learning to take place, the courses must be engaging and of high quality.

While CPS high school students did take a greater number of science courses, 5 out of 6 CPS students averaged a C or lower in science and made minimal gains in standardized tests, suggesting too little engagement and learning in class.

There seemed to be an increase in learning (as measured by grades) for only a small percentage of students. Before the policy took effect, 10% of students completed 3 years of science with a B average or higher and after the policy, 15% did so.

“In other words, the policy likely produced a noticeable increase in science knowledge and reasoning among just 5% of the students entering CPS high schools,” the researchers write.

“Passing Through Science: The Effects of Raising Graduation Requirements in Science on Course-Taking and Academic Achievement in Chicago,” Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, March 2010.

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