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Study urges curriculum shift to aid Boston students’ success in college

For more than a decade, Boston has resisted requiring a set of courses prescribed by the state aimed at ensuring college success, with some reluctant school officials worried that a more rigorous curriculum could hurt high school graduation rates.

But a report being released Friday makes a compelling case to adopt the tougher curriculum: It helps students succeed in college.

Boston high school graduates who completed the state college-preparation curriculum, called MassCore, had far better odds of earning a post-secondary degree than those who did not, according to the report by the Boston Opportunity Agenda, a partnership between local schools and nonprofits.


Specifically, 66 percent of those who completed MassCore earned post-secondary degrees in seven years. If they also took at least one Advanced Placement course, college completion rates rose to 79 percent.

“From a data perspective, it’s clear that MassCore is a strong avenue of opportunity for success in college, and it doesn’t seem wise to deprive kids of that,” said Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education who coauthored the report with Vaughan Byrnes.

Yet less than a third of Boston high school graduates complete MassCore. By contrast, 100 percent of graduates at many other high schools statewide complete the course of study.

Interim Superintendent Laura Perille, calling the findings “incredibly useful,” said she plans to announce on Friday some formal steps to overhaul high schools that could lead to the first changes to the system’s graduation requirements in more than a decade. The announcement will be made at School Department headquarters in Roxbury where the report will be officially unveiled.

“This is really an opportune moment,” she said. “When you are trying to drive change, making sure you are aiming for the right goal post is critical.”

The MassCore standards include four years of English and math, three years of science and social studies, two years of world language, one year in the arts, four years of physical education, and five electives. They are aligned with the admission requirements for the state’s university system and are considered by state officials to be a better indicator of college readiness than the MCAS standardized tests, which measure only 10th-grade knowledge.


But Boston’s graduation requirements are less ambitious. For example, the city mandates only three years of math; only two semesters of physical education, which is a violation of a state law that specifically requires four years; and makes no reference to electives.

Perille’s action plan calls for six committees of central office administrators and headmasters to make a variety of recommendations by June. The groups will vet such areas as adopting MassCore, increasing the number of guidance counselors, overhauling alternative education, developing more support for academically struggling students, and expanding internships and college-level courses.

The report — “College, Career, and Life Readiness: A Look at High School Indicators of Post-Secondary Outcomes in Boston” — was commissioned by the Boston Opportunity Agenda, a partnership between the school system, charter schools, parochial schools, and several nonprofits, including the Boston, Barr, and Nellie Mae foundations.

The organization undertook the analysis to determine the best college-readiness indicators for the school system, charter schools, and parochial schools. Aside from MassCore, the research found positive correlations between college completion and students who either had grade point averages of 2.7, at least one Advanced Placement course, or daily school attendance rates of 94 percent or higher. The more of these characteristics students possessed, the more likely they were to finish college.


By contrast, only 15 percent of graduates who did not meet any of the indicators earned post-secondary degrees.

“We are hoping this research will provide a road map for some of the immediate steps” that schools can take to prepare students for success in college and the workplace, said Kristin McSwain, executive director of the Boston Opportunity Agenda.

The report examined graduates from about three dozen high schools in 2010 and focused on only the 2,700 graduates who were in the school system since the eighth grade. The idea was to study the success of students that the school system had responsibility for throughout high school.

Overall, those students had a college completion rate of 39 percent.

The new report found that while the chosen indicators did a good job of predicting success at four-year colleges, they were not reliable indicators for degree completion at community colleges and other two-year institutions.

Balfanz said that students at two-year institutions might get sidelined more by challenges in their lives, noting many enroll part time and may be juggling full-time jobs, child rearing, and other responsibilities.

The findings are considered the first examination of whether MassCore, adopted by the state in 2007, is living up to its goal of ensuring success in college.

Former superintendent Tommy Chang made the most recent push by a Boston school official to adopt MassCore four years ago. But his team encountered opposition from headmasters, teachers, and other school officials who either didn’t understand MassCore, worried about the cost of implementing it, or questioned if it could cause the school system’s graduation rate to drop.


The school system has taken pride in increasing its graduation rate to repeated historic highs — 72.7 percent in 2017, according to the most recent state data.

Perille acknowledged that raising the school system’s standards for earning a diploma could lead to a lower graduation rate, but she said that would be only temporary. The negative effects could be minimized through the thoughtful rollout of the higher standards, including providing students more support to succeed, she said.

Paul Reville, who chaired the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education when MassCore was developed, said he was pleased the report validated the importance of MassCore and encouraged that Perille is planning to take decisive steps to overhaul graduation requirements and high school programs.

“It’s been an egregious oversight of the BPS to not insist that their students meet this set of requirements,” Reville said. “I hope findings like these are a bucket of cold water in the face of the school system to wake up to MassCore and push students to take them to make sure they are as prepared as possible to succeed in college. I can’t think of a cogent argument not to do this.”


Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the time period for college completion.

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.