Should All Students Take A College Prep Curriculum? Evidence From Chicago Indicates Little Positive Impact

January 16th, 2010

College Prep for All?  What We’ve Learned in Chicago

Guest Blog:

Christopher Mazzeo
Associate Director of Policy and Outreach, Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR)

As state policymakers seek to improve the rigor of the high school curriculum and enhance student preparation for college, many have turned to increasing course requirements in core academic high school subjects.  About 20 states now require all students to take some version of what is called a “default curriculum” to graduate.  This approach to increasing curriculum rigor and college readiness in high schools seems,
at first glance, to make a lot of sense.   Existing research has shown
that students who take high-level course sequences learn more in high school and are more likely to attend and perform better in college than students who do not take these classes.  However, the existing research cannot actually tell us whether changing course requirements per se is what lead to these improved outcomes for students.  This is because previous studies do not fully correct for selection bias: that is the students who choose to take high-level classes are often the most motivated and high-achieving students in their schools, and the schools that offer advanced these courses to many students are those with the capacity to teach those courses and are often college-oriented in other ways.

To inform state and district curriculum policies, and to address some of these limitations of the previous research, colleagues of mine at the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) and the University of Michigan have recently published a study in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (EEPA) that examines a 1997 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) policy that ended remedial classes and mandated college-preparatory coursework for all students in four subject areas: English, Mathematics, Science and Social Studies. The study examines the consequences of the curriculum policy change by comparing outcomes for cohorts of students who attended the same Chicago high schools before and after policy implementation in two ninth grade courses: Algebra I and English I.
What the authors found is sobering to say the least.  The new policy did reduce inequities in ninth grade coursework by entering skill-level, race and ethnicity, and special education status. It also led to slight increases in high school graduation for the lowest skilled students.
However, the policy had NO effects on the major outcomes curriculum reforms generally seek to impact.  Test scores in these classes did not rise, students were no more likely to take advanced mathematics classes beyond Algebra II, nor any more likely to attend college.  Moreover, the policy change produced a number of adverse unintended consequences: math grades declined, math failures increased and absenteeism rose among average and higher skilled students.

The findings of this study have important implications for policymakers looking to implement default curriculum or other course taking requirements in their states.  While reforms like these can have valuable equity benefits, they are not likely to work without significant and complementary efforts to build the capacity of schools and educators to make improvements in the quality high school instruction.  In particular, the study suggests that curriculum reforms
must start by solving the problem of engaging students in coursework.
Student academic behaviors (e.g. attendance, studying) in their classes are more predictive of student success in high school than any other factors, including incoming skill levels.  Without improved engagement, the promise of these well-meaning state reforms are likely to go unrealized.