Unintended consequences: More high school math, science linked to more dropouts
As U.S. high schools beef up math and science requirements for graduation, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have found that more rigorous academics drive some students to drop out.
The research team reported in the June/July issue of the journal Educational Researcher that policies increasing the number of required high school math and science courses are linked to higher dropout rates.
?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.
Studying census data going back to 1990, the researchers showed that the U.S. dropout rate rose to a high of 11.4 percent when students were required to take six math and science courses, compared with 8.6 percent for students who needed fewer math and science courses to graduate. Results also varied by gender, race and ethnicity with the dropout rate for some groups increasing by as much as 5 percentage points.
Plunk and his colleagues studied census data that tracks educational attainment. The researchers compared the performance of students in states with more rigorous math and science requirements to students in states where these requirements were less stringent.
?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 researchers looked at student outcomes in 44 states where more stringent graduation requirements went into effect during the 1980s and 1990s. They used the data to examine how factors such as sex, race, ethnicity and moving from state to state, together with the tougher requirements, influenced educational attainment.
Among Hispanic males, the dropout rate increased 2.5 percentage points, and among African-American males, the rate rose by 2 points. The overall dropout rate for African-American males was 19 percent on average. But for young African-American males who went to schools in states with the most stringent math and science graduation requirements, the dropout rate rose to 23 percent.