Requiring More Math and Science Courses Falls Short in Improving College and Career Readiness

Posted August 04, 2014

Although several states have mandated more advanced coursework for high school students, the stricter graduation guidelines alone may not be enough to prepare students for college and careers, according to a report released by ACT today.

The report, Missing the Mark, follows the first few waves of high school graduates affected by Public Act 94-0676, enacted by Illinois in 2005. According to the law, Illinois students now have to take a minimum of three years of math and two years of science in order to graduate. Before the reform, about 23 percent of Illinois school districts required three years of math, while about 75 percent of Illinois school districts required two years of science.

The report uses data from 818,611 ACT math and science test scores from the high school graduating classes of 2005 through 2013 in Illinois, not including Chicago. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse and an Illinois State Board of Education graduation requirements survey were used as well.

The report examines the effect of the law on students in the top half (high-ranking) of their graduation class compared to those in the bottom half (low-ranking). Because low-ranking students often take fewer science and math classes than high-ranking students, the reforms were expected to have a greater influence on low-ranking students.

The study compared school districts affected by the new requirements (treated districts) to those that had already mandated the requirements (untreated districts), and found three key results:

  • Course Taking: The law had little effect on trends in math course taking, but low-ranking students did take more science classes. By 2013, the science course-taking gap between treated and untreated districts fell by 50 percent, suggesting that the law had some success.
  • Achievement: The requirements had little effect across the board for student achievement on the ACT® college readiness assessment for both mathematics and science.
  • College Enrollment: College enrollment for both high- and low-ranking students increased due to the higher math requirement, but enrollment wasn’t affected by the science requirement.

These findings indicate that, as a stand-alone policy, higher graduation requirements are unlikely to improve college and career readiness for high school students or have a substantial effect on college enrollment. The study looked only at outcomes based on the changes in the numbers of courses taken; there was no measure of the quality or content within courses before or after enactment of the law.

“The results suggest that more advanced coursework alone is not enough to improve student learning or college going,” said Scott Montgomery, ACT vice president of policy, advocacy, and government relations. “A majority of students will require more intensive preparation for advanced coursework or coursework that is better adapted to their learning needs. In addition, low-performing students often need extra encouragement and supports, not just new standards, to take more advanced courses and succeed in them.”

The Missing the Mark report can be viewed and downloaded for free on the ACT website at www.act.org/research/policymakers/reports/missingthemark.html.