By ROB BOCK
WASHINGTON (March 8, 2012)—Increased access to Advanced Placement classes, more rigorous math courses, dual enrollment classes, and early college high school programs are the best ways to strengthen high school curricula, according to a report released Wednesday by the National School Boards Association's Center for Public Education.
The report, "Is high school tough enough?" reviews research behind effective strategies to strengthen high school curricula and improve the college and career readiness of public high school graduates.
The main problem, said Patte Barth, director of the association's center, is a lack of access to strategies designed to increase the rigor of curricula in low-income or minority schools.
"It's been clear for some time that 21st century jobs are going to demand higher level knowledge and skills," said Barth. "No student can learn anything if they don't have the opportunity to learn it."
Studies cited in the report determined that completing Algebra II more than doubles the odds of successfully completing college. Nearly 3,000 high schools serving 500,000 students nationwide do not offer Algebra II.
"Without access to even Algebra II, these new graduates really, really don't have much of a chance," Barth said.
Montgomery County's effort to improve student grades in Algebra II courses was cited in the report as one example of toughening curricula.
In 2009, Montgomery County Public Schools announced the "Seven Keys to College Readiness," a plan intended to highlight steps students need to take to succeed in college. The fifth key stressed the importance of completing Algebra II with a grade of C or better by the end of 11th grade.
"We believe that to be successful in future endeavors, students need a richer experience than what a D will provide," said Ed Nolan, MCPS' supervisor of mathematics. "We are looking for Cs or better."
To do that, Nolan said, MCPS worked to improve teacher comprehension of curricula through staff collaboration and training. Additionally, steps were taken to evaluate skills and gauge proficiency in students.
The improvements are coming, Nolan said, "but not as fast as we'd like them."
"We'd like them to be instantaneous," Nolan continued. "We are starting to see some growth. Not just getting students in Algebra II, but in having them be successful."
The board's report also pointed to increased access to AP classes as a way to increase high school academics.
The number of high schools offering AP classes increased from 8,768 in 1989 to 18,340 in 2011, the report said.
Students who take AP classes are at least twice as likely to graduate college in five years, and that percentage is even higher among underrepresented minority and low-income students.
Maryland has also seen success in this category, said William "Bill" Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education.
In 2011, Maryland had the second-highest percentage of students taking AP exams, and had the highest percentage of students receive passing scores of '3' out of a possible five points.
"We aren't ready to declare victory, but we believe we are well on our way to providing our students with the type of high school experience that gives them what they need to succeed."
Barth said one of the main hurdles schools face in strengthening curricula is a lack of qualified teachers.
The two other key strategies listed in the report, dual enrollment classes and early college high school programs, could remedy this by giving high school students access to college-level professors and classes that would be unavailable otherwise.
The intent of the strategies, Barth said, is to serve students of all ability levels by expanding access to more difficult courses.
"Many of our high schools are doing a very good job of developing students for after they graduate," Barth said, "but it is uneven."
"We're not suggesting any of these strategies are the answer. These are just the popular strategies that are being used. But we are seeing an effect."