WE KNOW that completing a bachelor's degree increases employment opportunities and income potential. We know that high school students who complete a strong "core" curriculum (math, science, English, and social studies) score higher on college entrance exams and so have a better chance of being admitted to colleges and universities. We know that more students than ever before are taking these core courses in high school. We know that those numbers are not high enough. We know that students who take any remedial reading courses in college are less likely to earn a two- or four-year degree than those who take other remedial courses. We know that back in 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued five major recommendations in A Nation at Risk:
* State and local high school graduation requirements should be strengthened.
* Schools, colleges, and universities should adopt more rigorous and measurable standards and higher expectations for academic performance and student conduct; four-year institutions should raise admissions requirements.
* Significantly more time should be devoted to learning the "New Basics."
* The quality of teaching and learning should be improved.
* Citizens should hold educators and elected officials responsible for providing the leadership necessary to achieve these reforms and should provide the fiscal stability required to bring about the reforms.
Over the past 17 years, states did strengthen graduation requirements through legislation. Sometimes, however, compliance with the law does not meet the spirit of the law, and sometimes additional coursework requirements have been met in name only. For example, increasing from two to three years of mathematics might mean that the first-year algebra course has been broken down into two separate courses. Or consumer math, general math, and business math might be the only mathematics to which certain students have access.
So states set standards in the core content areas. Now, in nearly all states, students are expected to know and be able to do certain things. Yet many of these students can find themselves facing such circumstances as the following:
* Having completed one semester of general math, by which time the algebra classes are moving on to second-semester work, a student has no options except to sign up for a second semester of general math.
* Having taken first-semester algebra and failed, a student has no options for second semester because algebra isn't offered again until the following fall.
* Having signed up for geometry but found all classes filled, a student has no option but to take general math.
While no one can say how common these and similar situations may be, they are real possibilities. The states are now addressing the need to ensure that all students have access to the types of courses they will need if they are going to pass high school exit exams or meet state content standards. The states are also coming to realize that many students learn best by applying their skills, not by taking notes during lectures. How are the states handling these issues?
States Renew the Challenge
Oklahoma passed an omnibus bill this year (H.B. 2728) that adds "attainment of competencies" as a method of satisfying core course requirements. Oklahoma might be the first state to directly address the demonstration of proficiency (through testing or some other means) as an alternative to seat time. However, since most students will still be taking courses to meet requirements, the law mandates that all alternative courses have content equal to or higher than that required in traditional core courses.
Also in Oklahoma, S.B. 105 modified the Oklahoma Advanced Placement Incentive Program, a component of which authorizes the state board to award grants to school districts that support pre-AP courses, International Baccalaureate courses, and the development of AP vertical teams, which are made up of representatives of various levels of schooling whose purpose is to improve the articulation between levels. …