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Rigorous H.S. Math and Science Requirements can Increase the Dropout Rate

Update Date: Aug 01, 2014 10:02 AM EDT

High schools are supposed to help teenagers prepare for college by challenging students with tough and stimulating classes, such as AP Math or AP Science. Even though these classes aim to educate students, a new study is reporting that rigorous high school classes can also have a negative effect on the students. The researchers from Washington University in St. Louis, MI, found that when high schools intensified their math and science requirements, the dropout rate increased.

"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, reported in the university's press release. "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."

The research team examined census data in 44 states that dated back to 1990. They focused on the relationship between the number of high school math and science courses that the students were required to take and the dropout rate. When the number of math and science classes increased to six, the dropout rate was 11.4 percent. For other high school students who only needed fewer than six classes to graduate, the dropout rate was at 8.6 percent. The researchers added that when they factored in gender, race and ethnicity, the dropout rate changed by as much as five percent.

"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."

The team found that in Hispanic and African-American males, rigorous courses increased the dropout rate by 2.5 and two percentage points respectively. Overall, the average dropout rate for African-Americans was 19 percent. In the states where the courses were the most stringent, the dropout rate for African-Americans increased to 23 percent. The researchers concluded that there is no "one-size-fits-all" education program. High schools cannot expect all students to be able to complete these courses.

"Many students were ill-prepared for the tougher standards," said co-author William F. Tate, PhD, dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and vice provost for graduate education. "Going forward, state policymakers must understand that students can't take more math and science courses if they quit school.

The study was published in the journal, Educational Researcher.

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