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Tougher classes await SD high school freshmen

Fri, 07/16/2010 - 9:13pm
JOSH VERGESAssociated Press

Unlike the high schoolers before them, next year's South Dakota freshmen are expected to pass geometry, algebra II, physics and chemistry in order to graduate.

The state Board of Education made those classes mandatory in hope of preparing more students for college. But some educators say the move will force schools to dumb down difficult math and science classes, hurting the state's highest-achieving students.

School districts already are planning to offer alternative classes and developing approaches to help students, many of whom would not have taken such upper-level classes in the past, to succeed.

In Sioux Falls, for example, teachers are creating a lighter version of algebra II, which will cover only the minimum concepts required by the state.

Aberdeen's strategy for geometry is to teach the same content but offer students twice the class time to learn it.

While those alternative classes are possible in districts with larger numbers of students, the state's smaller schools might be unable to offer such options.

"I know I'm going to tell teachers we still have to teach that curriculum," said Menno Superintendent Chris Christensen. Some students will be granted waivers out of the new requirements, but others will have to tough it out.

"It's going to be hard for some kids. They may get D's but they'll get through it."

Freeman geometry teacher Bill Waltner said he'll have to change the way he teaches to accommodate slow learners.

"To get them through those classes, we'll have to back off the rigorousness," he said.

For the past four years, South Dakota high schoolers chose from any of three paths to graduation. The easiest required only two credits in lab science and three in math, and the only mandatory course in those areas was algebra I.

The new requirements, which will apply to this fall's freshmen and beyond, dropped the three paths in favor of the more rigorous minimum schedule. Students can apply for waivers out of chemistry or physics and either algebra II or geometry, but everyone must now earn at least three credits in both math and lab science to graduate.

Paul Turman, Board of Regents associate vice president for academic affairs, said university officials don't like the waiver option, but the new requirements are a step up. He said all students should take upper-level math and science classes to prepare for college or careers.

"They're going to need those types of skills," he said.

Turman dismisses the argument that the new rules will lead to less rigorous classes, because schools still must teach to the state's standards. He likens the complaint to when college professors say students will give them poor reviews if their classes are too difficult.

"What we've seen is when you put those expectations there, students typically rise to the challenge," Turman said.

Waltner, the Freeman chemistry teacher, doesn't understand why all students will be expected to take college-prep classes when the U.S. Department of Labor said one-third of jobs require no more than a high school education.

"It just doesn't make sense to me," he said.

Christensen, who was a math teacher before he was put in charge of Menno schools, argued against the new math requirements when state officials were considering them last fall. But he acknowledged he worried when algebra I became mandatory years ago, and that's worked out fine.

Kelly Duncan, president of the state board of education, said the intent of the new requirements is to ensure that students are ready to move from high school to whatever post-secondary option they choose, whether it's college, technical school, the military or work.

"The new requirements also provide some flexibility for students to pursue courses that make sense in light of their long-range academic and career goals," she said.

It is up to school districts to decide the best delivery method for students, Duncan said.

"The board expects that the courses districts teach meet the state content standards, but it is not our role to dictate curriculum or delivery methods. Those decisions should be made by local school leaders based on the unique needs of their student population," she said. "The content standards are very specific about what content needs to be covered. There is nothing that allows for watering down of content if one is working toward meeting the standards."

There are no national graduation requirements, but South Dakota's new rules put it on par with what is expected in many other states. More than 30 states require three or more high school math classes and several states specify that should include algebra II, according to a 2006 report by the Colorado-based Education Commission of the States, the most recent report available.

National research also shows that more high school students today are completing challenging courses than in the past. In 2005, for example, 51 percent of students took mid-level or more rigorous courses. That compares with 31 percent who took the more challenging classes in 1990, according to the Nation's Report Card, a federal government report on academic progress.

Students who completed advanced math courses jumped from 17 percent to 28 percent in that same time period, while the number of students who completed calculus doubled - from 7 percent to 14 percent.

Becky Nelson of the state Department of Education said not all school districts are happy about the new rules, but they've accepted them and have begun preparing. Some are making more time for math classes. Others are making classes more relevant to real-life jobs by teaching geometry along with building trades classes or sciences along with health career courses.

"There's a variety of avenues that schools are taking to meet the requirements," she said.

The effect of the change probably won't be felt for a couple years, because few of the affected students will take those classes as freshmen. But Sioux Falls is getting a head start by piloting some new classes.

Twenty juniors and seniors at Roosevelt High School will participate in a pilot class next year called informal algebra II. Roosevelt math chairman Pat Lee said those students will not learn about conic sections, ellipses or hyberboles and will do less work with matrices than they would in the standard algebra II course.

The new class will meet, but not exceed, the state's standards. With less content to cover, the teacher can move more slowly and use more activities and visual examples.

"It's a class that's meant for students who normally couldn't get through algebra II," Lee said.

Junior Megan Pannell signed up for the informal algebra class even though it is not yet required for her to graduate. "Her plan is college," her mother, Patti Pannell, said.

Her daughter excels in writing and creative and artistic classes but has been frustrated by how fast previous math classes have moved. They hope the informal algebra class will give her the time to learn what she needs for college.

"She's a really smart girl, but I think she needs some extra time to really process the information," Patti Pannell said. "She's still learning the essentials, but in a setting she can be successful in."

The Sioux Falls district also will offer a semester-long pilot class in modern physics at Roosevelt and Washington. It will cover 20th-century concepts that traditional high school physics courses don't tackle.

Washington physics teacher Jeff Berndt said there's talk of creating a one-semester biochemistry class which, in combination, would allow students another way to satisfy new science lab requirements.

While the new graduation requirements could produce more options, altering math and science classes is not a new idea. Sioux Falls already offers high school math classes that cover less content or give students more time to learn the information.

Baltic, too, offers an advanced algebra I class, which gives students three years to learn two years' worth of geometry and algebra II.

Aberdeen Central has a class called chemistry in the community. Like the new Sioux Falls math course, it teaches no more than the basics required by the state.

Aberdeen's principal, Jason Uttermark, said the new graduation rules have moved his school to create a new way of learning geometry. The school is on a block schedule, which gets students through one year's worth of content and credit each semester. This fall, students can sign up for a yearlong geometry course, which will count for only one credit.

"It's twice the time to cover the same material," he said.

Uttermark said it's possible the school will create a new physics-light class, as it did with chemistry.

"We need a couple of what we call in-between classes," he said.

Uttermark isn't happy with the new graduation structure. He liked the three-tiered system, whose "distinguished" pathway encouraged top-end kids to take four years each of math and science, while not forcing the rest of the students to take classes they can't handle.

The new system is great for capable but unambitious students who would otherwise be content to skate through with easy classes, he said. But small-school realities could hurt the high-achievers, who will share classrooms with students who are there only because they have to be.

"It becomes very tempting to them to not offer the same rigor for those students at the top end, the top 20 percent," Uttermark said. "Those general courses that all students are going to have to take are going to look more like our chemistry-in-the-community course."

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Brenda Wade Schmidt contributed to this report.

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

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