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Are High Schools Failing Their Students? (page 2)

— The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

Is Rigor Enough?

As the idea of challenging all students to learn more takes hold, the complexities of this issue become more evident. Increasing course requirements—while lowering expectations—will not result in either challenging academic content or higher outcomes for students. In January, the Education Commission of the States published a policy brief titled, Ensuring Rigor in the High School Curriculum: What States Are Doing (Dounay, 2006), which warns that increasing graduation and course requirements alone “does not necessarily translate into a more rigorous and challenging curriculum” (p. 1). It cites a recent survey conducted by the Horatio Alger Association, which found that close to 60 percent of high school students felt that they were only moderately or somewhat challenged in their coursework. It also references a report by the National Center for Educational Accountability, which found that 60 percent of low-income students in Texas who completed Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry failed the state test, which covers only Algebra I. These statistics suggest a need for clarifying the distinction between rigorous standards and rigorous course content and more clearly specifying what challenging courses look like in the classroom. And even when that content is defined clearly, whether and how it actually is being taught must be monitored. Dounay (2006) suggests that increasing rigor also requires “developing versatile, dynamic and efficient assessment systems that both reflect and reinforce higher standards of teaching and learning” (p. 2).

The How-To of Rigor

Several programs exist that can help schools and districts navigate through the challenges of increasing rigor in their high schools, including First Things First, High Schools That Work, and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID). Another is the Talent Development High Schools (TDHS) program at Johns Hopkins University. TDHS works with low-performing schools that face grave challenges with student attendance, discipline, and dropout rates. In schools that adopt the TDHS model, all students are enrolled in a college-preparatory curriculum, but they also are provided with academic support services to ensure that they succeed. One of these services, the Ninth Grade Success Academy (NGSA), helps students make a smooth transition into high school. The NGSA schedules “double-dose” courses, meaning students take Algebra I and a course that teaches them how to transition into advanced mathematics at the same time. Similarly, while enrolled in English I, they participate in a strategic reading course. All ninth-grade students also are enrolled in a freshman seminar that helps them learn how to learn, with topics such as study skills, education planning, and career exploration. The TDHS program “ensures that students have a consistent network of teachers and peers from which to draw support and guidance, which is especially necessary for low-income students” (Martinez & Klopott, 2005, p. 23). A study conducted by Balfanz, Legters, and Jordan (2003) found that ninth-grade students in TDHS outperformed their peers in both reading and algebra in the matched-control schools. It also concluded that the program’s positive effects were evident in all students regardless of prior levels of academic achievement.

Studies and reports on the topic of high school reform that have emerged in recent years provide direction for schools and districts that want to create and implement a rigorous high school curriculum. They suggest the following:

    • High expectations for all students
    • Collaboration with university officials and business leaders to determine what students need to know to be prepared for work and college
    • A curriculum aligned with state standards and assessments
    • Clear goals in each course that spell out what students will be taught and what they are expected to learn
    • Academic and career support services for students, such as tutoring, afterschool programs, career counseling, or workshops addressing topics from study skills to note taking
    • Continuous professional development and resources for teachers, including information on how to vary instructional methods and how to modify instruction to ensure that all students learn
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