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Report: High School Rigor Essential for Students of Color

Report: High School Rigor Essential for Students of Color
By Charles DervaricsA new study on the link between high school coursework and postsecondary success paints a challenging picture for education advocates: African Americans can succeed in rigorous courses, but too few get the opportunity.

The report from Achieve Inc., finds that few states set high curricula and content standards that prepare students for college. Moreover, low-income and underrepresented students are most likely to feel the effects of this trend.

“No state requires its graduates to take courses that reflect the real-world demands of work and postsecondary education,” says the new report, “The Expectations Gap: A 50-State Review of High School Graduation Requirements,” released in Washington in late December. And students of color are “significantly” less likely to take rigorous, college-preparatory curricula than White students.

This lack of access is troublesome, since minority students show dramatically higher achievement when offered an opportunity to participate in these courses.

“Where minority students have taken a rigorous curriculum, their chance of completing college increases significantly,” said Matthew Gandal, executive vice president of Achieve, a nonprofit created by governors and business leaders.

He cited data showing that 75 percent of African Americans with a rigorous high school curriculum ultimately finish college. The college success rate for African Americans without that curriculum is much lower at 46 percent.

Rigorous high school courses also help African Americans achieve at a level closer to that of Whites. “It’s a gap closer,” Gandal told Black Issues.

The report cites access to three math courses as particularly critical to a student’s success in postsecondary education: Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II. Such courses are vital for students to succeed on college entrance exams and, ultimately, in higher education.

However, only three states — Arkansas, Indiana and Texas — either currently or soon will require schools to offer each of these courses to students.

“While some states offer students the option to pursue a truly rigorous course of study, a less rigorous set of course descriptions remains the standard in almost every state,” the report said. Elsewhere, Achieve said:

• Only five states require four years of math in high school;

• Thirteen states require as little as two years of high school math; and

• Just six states require four years of grade-level English, which helps students prepare for postsecondary education.

Moreover, even when states require more years of reading and math, there usually are no rules requiring the teaching of rigorous courses. For some students, remedial courses will fulfill the requirement.

Achieve is proposing to turn the current system on its head, requiring states to enroll all students in rigorous math and English courses. Students then could “opt out” with permission from a teacher and parent.

“The expectation is that all students will take a rigorous curriculum. That would be the complete opposite of what actually happens now,” Gandal said.

In making their case, report authors note that states and communities with ambitious goals on content and curricula report achievement gains.

Beginning in 1998, Indiana made a strong recommendation that schools offer rigorous courses for all students. At that time, only 25 percent of African American students had exposure to such courses. Five years later, the rate jumped to 46 percent.

Based on this success, he said, Indiana’s recommendation soon will become a requirement. In San Jose, Calif., the district had dramatic gains after requiring all students to take the Algebra-Geometry sequence required for admission to the University of California system. From 1998 to 2002, test scores for African American 11th-graders increased nearly seven times as much as those of African American students across the state.

“When minority students are required to take rigorous college-preparatory curricula, they rise to the challenge,” the report said.

The report follows on the efforts of many advocates who say that early access to rigorous courses such as Algebra is a civil right, not just a lofty goal.

“It’s all about exposure to the curriculum,” said Nancy Martin, program associate at the American Youth Policy Forum in Washington. She said a rigorous curriculum is essential for today’s students.

“Do we expect it? Yes,” she said. “Do we think we find it everywhere? No.”

Schools send a clear message if they do not have early and regular access to college gateway courses such as Algebra. “If it’s not offered, there’s an assumption that students aren’t going to college,” Martin added.

Nationwide, about half of White students and two-thirds of Asian students took a math course beyond Algebra II, compared with one-third of African American, Hispanic and American Indian students, the Achieve report noted.

Gandal cautioned state leaders that even high school exit exams do not necessarily spur rigor. While important, he said, those tests rarely include questions common to Algebra II or other higher-level courses — even though such work is essential for college success.

States will need to harness more “political will” to meet these recommendations, he added.

For more information about “The Expectations Gap: A 50-State Review of High School Graduation Requirements,” contact: Achieve Inc., 1775 Eye St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20006, <>.

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