With the federal government set to allow students to begin applying for Academic Competitiveness Grants starting July 1, policy makers and educators are trying to compel states to define and enforce “rigorous programs of studies” in secondary schools so that students can start receiving the funds.
Some higher education officials, with their eyes focused firmly on the current costs of remediation, have hailed the call to action, while noting that low-income students will lose out if high schools don’t step up to the challenge. Others have been more ambivalent, saying that the program creates more hoops for students to jump through, and arguing that the Department of Education should be more flexible in its rules for the program. There’s also a concern that limiting the awards to students who have completed a high school curriculum deemed “rigorous” by the U.S. secretary of education would greatly expand the federal role  in high school policy making.
The program was created when Congress passed and President Bush signed the Deficit Reduction Act this winter. Eligible students, who must receive Pell Grants and maintain a 3.0 grade-point average to qualify, will be able to receive up to $750 for their first academic year of study and up to $1,300 for their second year.
“I hope that these funds…can provide an incentive for states to get serious about rigor,” Tom Luce, an assistant secretary of education, told a packed room of educators in Washington on Monday. “We have got to do more than talk about rigor,” he implored. “We have to institute rigor.”
The College Board and the Alliance for Excellent Education sponsored the forum. Leaders with both organizations said that the Academic Competitiveness Grants, if carried out properly, will help high-achieving low-income students take courses necessary to succeed in college, while encouraging states to align high school curricula with the expectation of colleges and employers. A recent report from ACT  indicates that whether students are headed to college or directly into the work force, high school graduates need to be educated at comparable levels in mathematics and reading to succeed financially.
Ross Wiener, a principal partner with the Education Trust, said that high school educators need to get over any fears they might have about putting kids in more rigorous courses. “Students of all sorts will learn more in college prep courses,” he noted, based on several research studies.
Currently, the definition of a “rigorous program of study,” at least pertaining to this specific grant program, is in somewhat of a germination stage. The Department of Education has already said that several state programs, including the Alabama Advanced Academic Endorsement, the Ohio Honors Diploma and the Washington Scholar Designation, meet the criteria.
Additionally, all students who participate in the State Scholars Initiative, a Department of Education program that encourages business leaders to help define and measure student success, will be eligible. Only 14 states currently participate in the program, which requires at least four years of English, three years of math (including Algebra I, Algebra II and Geometry) three years of lab science (biology, chemistry and physics), three-and-one-half years of social studies and two years of a language other than English. Programs similar to State Scholars also meet the Education Department’s standards.
Students also can meet requirements by achieving a score of three or higher on two Advanced Placement exams or a score of four or higher on International Baccalaureate courses.
The Department of Education is asking that state education agencies submit proposals by July 1 for consideration of alternate programs of rigorous study.
Several experts at the forum noted that low-income high school students in rural and urban areas often don’t have access to the courses, teachers or counselors that would be necessary to compete for the grants. “The pool of students eligible to receive these grants is very low,” noted Ayeola Boothe Kinlaw, director of AP Equity and Access Initiatives with the College Board. “Thirty-nine percent of schools don’t have AP courses.”
She suggested that technological improvements, online courses and partnerships with institutions of higher education could help alleviate these problems in the short term.
Lauren Kaufman, who has helped develop the State Scholars program in two low-income Connecticut communities, said that educators there have found it beneficial to get students thinking about expectations early on in their education. Oftentimes those efforts have involved getting business leaders into middle and high school classrooms talking about what would be necessary for students to work in their fields after high school and college graduation.
Kaufman said she is currently working to measure the success of the program by looking at the cost of remediation for students who have completed it. The completion of that study, she said, will depend on future funding.
Leaders with the Alliance for Excellent Education, Achieve, Inc, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation also offered several joint recommendations to the Department of Education for the Academic Competitiveness Grants, including:
- Beginning with a more flexible definition of a “rigorous curriculum,” since the program has started so quickly. This would include accepting other state definitions of academic success, like receiving an “honors” diploma.
- Requiring more evidence from states that their definitions equate to college preparation as the program matures.
- Being transparent about expectations and publicly reporting on progress.