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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

August 14, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Study: Dropout risk goes up with higher math/science hurdle

Nancy Ohanian / Op Art

Nancy Ohanian / Op Art

The decades-long push to boost the number of math and science classes high-school students must take to graduate has raised a question: Will students who already are struggling to meet the current requirements drop out if the bar is even higher?

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis recently suggested that the answer is yes.

Their study, published in the June/July issue of the journal Educational Researcher found that students were more likely to drop out of high school if they had to pass six math/science classes to graduate (11.4 percent dropout rate) than if they had to pass two (8.9 percent dropout rate).

“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,” said one of the study’s authors, Andrew D. Plunk in an article about the study published by the university.

African-Americans and Hispanics were especially affected, he wrote.

The researchers analyzed U.S. Census data, which includes information about educational attainment, along with data about changing graduation requirements between 1980 and 1999 from the Educational Commission of the States, a nonprofit organization that tracks state policy trends.

But while the study shows a correlation between dropout rates and tougher graduation standards, there may be other factors at work.

For example, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham argued on his Science and Education blog in 2012 that it’s “misleading to depict math as the chief villain in America’s high dropout rate.” He cited research showing other factors might play a big role as well, such as motivation, self-control, social culture and a feeling of being connected and engaged at school.

Meanwhile, Washington state recently added a third science class to its graduation requirements, along with three math courses, responding to calls to beef up high school diplomas.

Comments | More in Math and science, News | Topics: dropouts, graduation requirements, math

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