A national report released Wednesday asks the question, “Is high school tough enough?” Education experts in Maine said the state is far ahead of others in certain areas and continuing to make progress but that overall the answer is “no.”

Wednesday’s report by the National School Board Association’s Center for Public Education draws a direct link between programs for high-achieving students — such as Advanced Placement courses and early or dual enrollment in college for high school students — and success in higher education.

“It’s been clear for some time that 21st century jobs will require a higher level of skills than we’ve traditionally been providing for our students,” said Patte Barth, director of the Center for Public Education, during a telephone conference call on Wednesday. “Our policymakers and school leaders have been looking at ways to strengthen curriculums. But we have kids in high school now and we have to do something for them.”

Among the findings of the report: Nationwide, approximately one-third of university students and 42 percent of two-year college students need remedial courses to make up for what they missed or weren’t provided in high school. Aside from college-level training, the report cited a dearth of high-level math courses in some 3,000 high schools as a major barrier to postsecondary success.

“Without access to even Algebra II, these new graduates really don’t have much of a chance, and it’s not just about college,” said Barth. “Without Algebra II you don’t even become an auto mechanic.”

The report calls for more rigor in high school programs, which it defines as an education program that challenges and stimulates students to develop critical thinking skills. In terms of a high school diploma, rigor means a student has taken a certain number of courses to graduate, including four years of English and math, 2.5 science classes, two years each of foreign language and social studies and at least one Advanced Placement course.

According to educators in Maine, including Don Siviski, superintendent of instruction for the Maine Department of Education, Advanced Placement courses have been prevalent and spreading in the state for years and a task force set up by Gov. Paul LePage is working on spreading early college opportunities.

But Siviski, who was an education administrator long before he joined the Department of Education, said the report raises some more basic questions, such as “What is rigor in a high school program?” and “What is a high school diploma?”

A major problem in Maine, according to Siviski, is equity when it comes to programs offered at high schools.

“Some high schools are not looking at providing students a sequence of rigor. They’re looking at a sequence of seat time and too many of them don’t have a rigorous expectation for a diploma,” said Siviski. “That may be the first hurdle that we have to address.”

To that end, the Department of Education has proposed a bill to the Legislature, LD 1422, “An Act to Prepare Maine People for the Future Economy.” The wide-ranging bill, which is under consideration by the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, would, among other things, require high schools to award diplomas based on common standards by 2015. In other words, every high school graduate would receive a diploma based on the same accomplishments. It’s a similar concept to Maine’s Learning Results system, which has been in place for several years but has yet to accomplish its goal.

“The difference now is that we have the technology to make it happen,” said Siviski.

He also said the state, under the leadership of Education Commissioner Steve Bowen, is working to tailor education curricula on a student-by-student basis as opposed to trying to pull all students through the same program at the same time. The goal is to educate students for real-world applications, not to pass a test.

“What has been the case so far is a very passive approach where the kid receives information from the teacher and then we test him on it,” said Siviski. “Now we’re saying kids need to use that information and to work it with other peers in the classroom.”

Roger Shaw, an assistant superintendent in MSAD 42 in Aroostook County’s Mars Hill region, is a member of LePage’s Early College for ME Task Force. He said though the task force won’t have its final recommendations ready for several months, a couple of problems keep coming up when it comes to discussions about connecting high school students with college courses: not enough money and problems regarding how students should be credited for taking the courses. Should they receive high school or college credit, or both?

According to a 2008 study by the Sen. George J. Mitchell Scholarship Research Institute, there is a direct correlation between a high school student’s involvement in early college classes during high school and his or her attending in college. Based on a sample of 690 Maine high school students, the study found that 80 percent of the students who took early college classes enrolled in college within a year of graduation, compared with an overall average of 60 percent.

But according to Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, which are used to measure progress of Maine’s 11th graders, Maine still lags behind national averages. In 2010, according to the College Board, Maine students scored 468 in critical reading, 467 in mathematics and 454 in writing, compared with national averages of 501, 516 and 492, respectively.

Shaw said he’d like to see more widespread availability of advanced and college-level classes for all students, not just those who are college-bound.

He said that on the bright side, there is evidence of progress at many different levels. Maine’s adoption of the national Common Core curriculum will help schools more properly align with one another and a new emphasis on education reform at the state level has many education officials eyeing the same goal.

“I’ve seen [gubernatorial] administrations come and go and it seems that every time we get a new administration we get a new emphasis and a new direction as far as initiatives,” he said. “It’s constantly changing from the top down and it doesn’t do much for education. To Steve Bowen’s credit, he committed early on to be an assistant for schools in the work they’re doing and not to burden schools down with more initiatives that never seem to get off the ground.”

Maureen King, another member of the Early College Task Force who also sits on the Maine School Board Association’s board of directors, said it’s clear that some high schools offer more than others but that the differences don’t necessarily depend on geography or socioeconomics. She said the major focus ought to ensuring that the opportunities are there if students want them.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is to make sure that if students get into high school and they don’t feel like they’re being challenged, that they have a way to challenge themselves,” she said. “It will take a little work but I think we’ll be able to get there.”

According to Barth, just the simple act of taking an Advanced Placement course in the first place doubles a student’s chances of graduating from college, and the numbers are even better for low-income and minority students. There is also evidence that taking college courses and math courses beyond Algebra II during high school leads to vastly higher levels of success for students in college.

But Barth said high schools also need to serve students who may not be college-bound. That’s important in Maine, where in 2010 the high school graduation rate was less than 83 percent, according to data from the Department of Education.

“The movement is to make sure that all students succeed,” said Barth. “A lot of [the study’s recommendations] is developed through what we traditionally thought of as the college prep curriculum, but it is serving many occupations, as well. Many of our high schools are doing a very good job of preparing all their kids, but it is uneven.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.