New school year means tougher standards for graduation

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 18, 2008

By Sarah Nagem
Starting next year, it’s going to be harder for students to graduate high school in North Carolina.
New requirements ó dubbed the future-ready curriculum ó might be especially bad news for students who struggle with math.
Every student will have to pass a second algebra class to graduate. Currently, students have to pass only one algebra course.
Some school leaders are worried that making it harder for students to graduate will lead to more dropouts.
Dr. Windsor Eagle, principal at Salisbury High, says many of the freshman at his school don’t have the math skills they need to take Algebra I. So they have to take catch-up courses to get on track.
During the 2006-07 school year, 53 students dropped out of Salisbury High ó the second highest number in the Rowan-Salisbury School System, behind Henderson Independent School and South Rowan High.
Tougher requirements
More and more, students who opt to enter the workforce after high school need the same skills as those who head to college, school leaders say.
“It used to be people could leave and do manual labor,” says Rebecca Garland, chief academic officer for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. “Well, there aren’t jobs now that don’t require literacy skills.”
An auto mechanic has to read computer information that’s written on a higher education level than some college material, Garland says.
To help students prepare, the state is making several classes more “rigorous,” she says.
The changes in math requirements are the most obvious.
The Rowan-Salisbury School System requires every student has four math credits, regardless which track they are in ó career, college tech prep or college/university prep.
But students in the career and college tech tracks don’t have to take Algebra II.
The future-ready curriculum essentially eliminates the less-intense track options for students, putting everyone in the same category.
Garland says the “rigor” will come in how some classroom material will be presented.
It doesn’t mean classes will be harder, she says. It means they will be more complex.
Students will be exposed to real-world scenarios “rather than just memorizing definitions,” Garland says.
For example, she says, students in a science class might research alternative energy sources, considering costs and feasibility. They could consider how they would advise the U.S. government to respond if the Middle East stopped shipping oil.
Few would disagree it sounds more interesting than reading about energy sources from a textbook and answering questions the old-fashioned way.
But expecting more from students could backfire if schools don’t take extra steps to form relationships with students and make learning relevant to their lives, says Dr. Walter Hart, assistant superintendent for Rowan-Salisbury schools.
About two-thirds of students here are already taking the most rigorous classes offered, he says.
He worries about the rest.
“It has more of an impact on the lowest-performing students,” Hart says.
The goal is to encourage more critical thinking, says Tim Smith, director of student services.
Some students might be able to opt out of a second algebra course and still graduate.
State education leaders are still looking at how to best help students meet new requirements, says Kathy McDuffie, director of secondary education for Rowan-Salisbury schools.
Maybe students could take another class instead, she says. And teachers will have to give extra help.
“I think we’re going to have to put some safeguards in there,” McDuffie says.
But she’s confident the new requirements won’t prove too big a hurdle for students.
“I believe kids meet expectations if we provide support,” she says.
Even so, McDuffie says curriculum changes might affect the dropout rate ó which is exactly what school leaders don’t want.