math and science dropouts
August 3, 2014

Effects Of “One-Size-Fits-All” Education When There Are Higher Math And Science Requirements

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

US high schools are tightening up their graduation requirements in math and science, which sounds like it should be a good thing. A new study from Washington University in St. Louis has found, however, that enforcing more rigorous academics drives some students to drop out. The study findings, published in Educational Researchers, reveal that policies increasing the number of required high school math and science courses are associated with higher rates of dropout.

“There’s been a movement to make education in the United States compare more favorably to education in the rest of the world, and part of that has involved increasing math and science graduation requirements,” explained first author Andrew D. Plunk, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine.

“There was an expectation that this was going to be good for students, but the evidence from our analyses suggests that many students ended up dropping out when school was made harder for them,” he added.

Plunk and his colleagues studied census data going back to 1990, revealing that the dropout rate in the US rose to a high of 11.4 percent when students were required to take six math and science courses. For students who needed fewer math and science requirements to graduate, the dropout rate was only 8.6 percent. Race, gender and ethnicity all showed varied dropout rates, with an increase of up to 5 percent for some groups.

The researchers analyzed census data that tracks educational attainment, comparing the performance of students in states with more rigorous math and science requirements to students in states with less rigorous requirements.

“As graduation requirements were strengthened, high school dropout rates increased across the whole population,” Plunk said. “But African-Americans and Hispanics were especially affected. I think our findings highlight the need to anticipate there may be unintended consequences, especially when there are broad mandates that, in effect, make high school coursework harder.”

Student outcomes in 44 states where graduation requirements were strengthened during the 1980s and 1990s were examined by the team. Factors such as sex, race, ethnicity, and family mobility (moving from state to state), were analyzed with the tougher requirements to see how they influenced educational attainment.

Hispanic males saw an increase in the dropout rates of 2.5 percent, while African American males rose by 2 percent. On average, 19 percent of African American males drop out of high school. In states that have higher math and science requirements, however, 23 percent of African American males drop out.

According to William F. Tate, PhD, dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and vice provost for graduate education, a significant number of students were ill prepared to meet the new, more rigorous, standards.

“Going forward, state policymakers must understand that students can’t take more math and science courses if they quit school.”

Plunk’s interest in the data lies in the public health consequences of rising dropout rates.

“High school education is very highly correlated with health outcomes,” he said. “Individuals who drop out of high school report more health problems and lower quality of life. Higher dropout rates also can strain the welfare system, which can affect people’s health.”

Other effects of the more rigorous math and science graduation requirements were also examined, such as college enrollment and the likelihood that students would earn a college degree. The expected correlation of higher dropout rates and lower college enrollment rates was found. However, among high school graduate Hispanic students whose families did not frequently move to new states or districts, the study found good news.

“If their families didn’t move frequently and they attended schools with tougher math and science requirements, the likelihood that Hispanic males would earn a college degree of some kind increased more than 6.3 percentage points,” Plunk said. “For Hispanic females, there was an increase of just over 5.3 points.”

The takeaway from this study, according to Plunk, is that “one-size-fits-all” education doesn’t work because the effects of such policies on various demographic groups, states and districts are very different—extending beyond the school dropout rates as well.

“Communities with higher dropout rates tend to have increased crime,” Plunk said. “Murders are more common. In fact, a previous study estimated that a 1 percent reduction in the country’s high school dropout rate could result in 400 fewer murders and 8,000 fewer assaults per year. Unfortunately, our finding of a 1 percent increase in the dropout rate suggests we are going in the wrong direction.”

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