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Designing Rigorous Academic Programs
These schools have a clear vision for their students' postsecondary success beyond high school. They raise the bar for all students so that they will be prepared not only to enter but also to complete college. Their rigorous graduation requirements include portfolios, senior projects, and advanced course curriculum that exceed district and state graduation requirements. Fulfilling them prepares students for admission to selective university programs and professional careers.
Research shows the importance of aligning high school graduation requirements with college admission criteria.13 To do so, many schools have increased graduation requirements beyond those of their district or state, requiring students to take not only more credits, but also more rigorous courses.14 For example, MLC's 25-credit graduation requirement is higher than the 22 credits required by the state of Connecticut. MLC requires more credits in mathematics, global studies, and foreign language (see fig. 7 on p. 20). To graduate, students also must complete a senior project. For MLC staff, part of the rationale for the increased requirements is to ensure that students reach higher proficiency levels in subject areas. MLC students begin language study in middle school so they have time to develop proficiency in one of three offered-Spanish, Chinese, or French-and reach the language AP level by the end of high school.
The magnet high schools with thematic strands in engineering or arts programs give students a structured sequence of course requirements and specific electives from which to choose. By taking the recommended progression, they are able to complete all of the requirements by graduation and are on track for college or future careers. For example, at Carver, there is a separate set of requirements for each of its three magnet themes-engineering, applied technology, and visual arts. A sampling of related careers are outlined on course selection guides, linking rigorous curriculum and skill preparation for future interests (see fig. 8 on p. 21).
At Bravo, all students are encouraged to meet the admission standards of the University of California and California State University systems, called "A-G" course work requirements. "One of the key factors here is that even if they didn't walk in the door wanting to go to college," says one teacher, "they are going to walk out the door knowing they need to go to college." As one student explains, "It's the number one priority of every single administrator, counselor, and teacher to send everybody to college. From the beginning they push us to go, and if you tell them you are thinking about quitting or dropping out, they'll push you, set up meetings, and tell you how you can better yourself." Bravo is well on its way to achieving that goal: Of its 2007 graduating class, 94 percent went on to two- or four-year colleges.
Several research studies link rigorous academics in high school to predictors of success in college and careers. For example, a study by ACT and the Education Trust looking across high-performing, high-poverty, high-minority high schools found that advanced, college-oriented material in core courses is the number one predictor of success in college and work.15 But studies have found that students from low-income families are less likely to be enrolled in college preparatory courses.16 Intending to reverse this trend, several of these magnet high schools offer AP courses, and one school offers the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme. DASH was recognized by the College Board as the international leader for having the largest number of African-American and Hispanic students earning college credit on the AP studio art exam. Of the 385 exams submitted in 2006 in 14 courses, 80 percent received a score meriting college credit. In 2007, 244 students took 500 AP tests in 16 AP subjects, and 66 percent scored 3 or higher, making them eligible for college credit. And 100 percent of the class of 2007 went on to college, with 87 percent attending four-year colleges and 13 percent attending two-year colleges.
One strategy for addressing low student achievement has been to increase the level of rigor in courses that students are taking in secondary school programs. Increasingly, AP and IB diploma programs have been added to high school curricula to enrich the academic content of teaching. Between 1997 and 2005, the total number of students taking AP examinations more than doubled.17 Many magnet high schools have opted to implement rigorous curriculum including AP and IB programs, explicitly preparing students for college. At MLC, eight AP courses are offered, and in 2007, 70 percent of the students in these classes came from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. At BTWHSPVA, 19 AP courses are offered, and the College Board has recognized the school as having the strongest AP Music Theory course in the nation. The high levels of achievement by minority students at these magnet schools further suggests their success in preparing all students for rigorous college programs.
Adelman's landmark study on contributing factors to completion of a bachelor's degree showed that, at the high school level, the key factor linked to college completion is a rigorous curriculum.18 The National Center for Education Statistics found that students who completed any advanced mathematics course (64 percent) enrolled in four-year colleges at nearly double the rate of those who only completed mathematics through Algebra II (34 percent).19 Putting this research into practice, all of these schools have sequenced their mathematics programs so that students will reach such advanced courses as calculus, trigonometry, or statistics by the end of their high school education.
Every student at NEM takes mathematics for all four years of high school. These classes meet daily for 95 minutes all year long, providing more time on task and opportunities for remediation, enrichment, and acceleration. Students are expected to complete Algebra II or beyond, and science magnet students are required to complete Algebra II and Precalculus/Trigonometry with a C or above. In 2007, 86 percent of students passed the Kansas state mathematics test.
Several of these magnet schools have project graduation requirements. CSAS requires two distinct exhibitions of student mastery to graduate: the Scholar's Journey and the Senior Project. To graduate from CSAS, students must complete the Senior Project (see fig. 9 on p. 22) that includes a 10-12-page research paper, 30 hours of related community service, the creation of a tangible product, and two culminating presentations. Senior Project papers have explored such topics as biodiversity and water quality in a local watershed. Similar to a college-level dissertation process, essential questions, outside experts, and bibliographies for research papers must be approved by Senior Project advisers each step of the way.
To ensure that students are taking rigorous academic programs, these schools provide academic advising so that students receive guidance when making their annual course selections. Academic advising plans include preparing students for the college application process. At BTWHSPVA, the school hosts college representatives for a multiday event where students perform and present their best work. At DASH, the college counselor organized a trip to New York City to show students college campuses and meet with alumni and college students, creating a bridge to the next step in their education.