Research concludes that students don't learn more science under Chicago Public Schools College-Prep-for-All Policy

A Chicago Public Schools policy that dramatically increased science requirements did not help students learn more science and actually may have hurt their college prospects, according to a new report from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.

The science policy was part of a larger CPS initiative to expose all students to a college-preparatory curriculum by increasing course requirements across a range of subjects.

Though CPS high school students took and passed more college-prep science courses under the new policy, overall performance in science classes did not improve, with five of every six students earning Cs or lower. College-going rates declined significantly among graduates with a B average or better in science, and they dipped for all students when researchers controlled for changes in student characteristics over time.

The report, "Passing Through Science: The Effects of Raising Graduation Requirements in Science on Course-taking and Academic Achievement in Chicago," has significant implications for districts across the country considering requiring a college-preparatory curriculum for all students. In 2009, 21 states required all students to take four years of math and a minimum of three years of science to graduate high school. These policies were a response to long-running concerns that American students are falling behind their peers on international tests, particularly in math and science. Most recently, President Obama announced a major new public-private initiative designed to increase student engagement in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

CPS was at the forefront of the movement to require a college-preparatory science curriculum for all. In 1997, CPS mandated that all incoming ninth-graders take three years of college-preparatory science coursework. This policy change occurred several years before many states raised their science requirements and eight years before the state of Illinois instituted a more modest increase.

To examine the effect of the policy change, the CCSR report compares academic outcomes for cohorts of students in Chicago before and after the 1997 policy switch. Key findings from the report include:

  • The new curriculum policy ended low expectations for science coursework. Two years before the policy change, less than half of CPS graduates passed three or more college-prep science courses; most did not complete more than one. Immediately after the change, almost all graduates passed at least three full-year science classes.
  • Most graduates received a C average or lower in science, which was similar to the performance of graduates before the policy change.
  • Because of policy's structure, students were less likely after the policy to take both physics and chemistry, a combination that is common for students aspiring to college nationally.
  • Graduation rates declined by four percentage points in the first year of the policy and another percentage point in the next year, after accounting for changes in the backgrounds and prior achievement of students entering CPS high schools.
  • College enrollment did not increase under the new policy; nor did college persistence (students were no more likely to stay in college for at least two years).

"Expanding and improving science education is a worthy goal, and adopting a universal college-preparatory curriculum that includes rigorous science requirements is an important first step," the report's authors write. "However, policymakers must pay attention to the lessons learned by CPS: Simply exposing more students to more science may not by itself produce a single extra science major-much less the influx of new scientists envisioned nationally."

The Consortium on Chicago School Research is part of the Urban Education Institute.

About the authors:

Nicholas Montgomery is a Senior Research Analyst at CCSR. Nicholas studies changes in high school curriculum policy in the Chicago Public Schools. He also leads the Data and Practice Collaborative, a new effort to deliver data reports to schools based on CCSR research and to work with networks of schools to improve the reports and their usage.

Elaine Allensworth is the Interim Co-Executive Director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research. She has published widely on the structural factors that affect high school students' educanottional attainment, particularly the factors that affect graduation and dropout rates. Elaine is currently leading a mixed-methods study of the transition to high school, as well as several studies on the effects of rigorous curricular reforms on instruction, grades, test scores, high school graduation and college attendance.