In an effort to prepare students for college and careers, nearly all states have toughened their graduation requirements, particularly in science and mathematics. But their efforts may mean fewer students make it through high school and to college in the first place, according to a new study in the journal Education Researcher.
Lead researcher Andrew D. Plunk and his colleagues tracked the rates of students dropping out of high school, attending college, and completing a higher degree in states between 1980 and 1999, during the last period in which states tightened graduation requirements.
Across nearly every racial group, high school dropout rates increased as states required more math and science courses in order to graduate. For example, the researchers found dropout rates were nearly 3 percentage points higher for students in states like Pennsylvania, Florida, and Louisiana that required a total of six math and science classes to graduate by 1990, than in states with no requirements, 11.4 percent versus 8.6 percent.
That's not surprising; critiques of efforts to boost high school rigor have often pointed out that students are more likely to give up (or get pushed out) if they face a higher bar to graduation. What gives more pause: The researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found boosting math and science course requirements did not increase the likelihood graduates would go on to college—in fact, non-migrant Hispanic men became more than 5 percentage points less likely to attend college, and non-migrant Hispanic women more than 3 percentage points less likely to attend.
Among those who did attend, the additional coursework in high school seemed to help some of them earn a degree. Black women who graduated under requirements for six courses were nearly 3 percentage points more likely to earn a degree in college, and Hispanic men were more than 6 percentage points likelier to earn a degree if they attended college after finishing high school with the highest graduation requirements.
So what's the takeaway here? Obviously, it is important for students to be prepared to complete rigorous coursework in college, but if students never manage to get to college it's a bit of a moot point.
With most states working to implement new mathematics standards under the Common Core State Standards and other content benchmarks, and others implementing the Next-Generation Science Standards, policymakers should be bracing for more students to struggle to meet more rigorous course requirements. This study suggests a higher bar without more instructional support could leave behind the very students that standards are intended to help.
For more about the study, check out the American Association of Educational Research's interview with the researchers: