A revolution is going on in our high schools. It rests on the belief that high school and college courses can be merged in high school classrooms without any loss in educational value.

For some students, the fully implemented concept would combine the last two years of high school with the first two years of college. They would graduate from high school with two years of college credit and could enroll as juniors at a four-year Oregon university.

So-called dual credit or dual enrollment programs allow high school students to earn high school and college credit simultaneously. The approach has been around for decades but has been growing fast as districts nationwide seek to mitigate high tuition costs and motivate more students to seek college degrees.

A look at current practices suggests a good idea is being expanded far beyond what research and common sense can justify. We risk dumbed-down degrees and poorly educated graduates.

Does high school really have so little value? And how does this mesh with the frequent complaint that we send ill-prepared high school graduates to college where they need remedial help?

Imagine this model already in use at Mountain View High School in Bend. A high school teacher, in a high school classroom, teaches a college course to high school students including:

• Some who will earn high school credit only.

• Others who will earn high school and college credit from the sponsoring college, most often Central Oregon Community College.

• Still others who will earn high school credit and take a nationally standardized Advanced Placement test in hopes of scoring high enough that the college they attend will award credit.

Any student can take the class.

The high school teacher must have the same educational qualifications as a college instructor. He or she works with a college mentor but teaches and grades the course independently.

We suspect there are a few spectacular teachers who could pull off such a challenging teaching assignment. But it’s implausible to think high school teachers could routinely maintain college rigor in a high school classroom with such a wide mix of students.

Lower teacher qualifications

More worrisome is a new pilot program that cuts the required qualifications for the teachers.

The effort seeks to make dual credit classes available in smaller schools where there aren’t enough teachers with the appropriate credentials.

Cascades Commitment recently won a $450,000 grant from the Oregon Education Investment Board to bring five college courses to 11 high schools in Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties.

The group is working on a plan to allow high school teachers to teach college courses even if they lack the current COCC requirements: a master’s degree in the subject or a master’s in education plus 15 credits in the subject.

Instead, they will attend a one-week intensive training session this summer and participate in regular meetings throughout the school year with high school and college teachers. The plan also provides tuition for teachers to start filling in the gaps in their credentials, but meanwhile they could start teaching the classes.

It’s part of a one-year pilot to determine if the teacher-qualification standards can be relaxed without losing instructional value.

While we certainly agree that education credits alone don’t make a good teacher, this plan puts another hole in the fabric designed to maintain academic standards.

Other states have grappled with the same problem, but many have focused on helping more teachers earn the credentials before they take on these challenging assignments.

Many Central Oregon high schools also provide pathways to college credits by having students go to COCC and take regular college classes as if they were already matriculated. At Bend High, International Baccalaureate students can earn college credits by passing internationally standardized tests.

In Bend-La Pine Schools, high school students earned 7,074 college credits in 2013-14, up from 4,937 in 2009-10. (International Baccalaureate credits are not yet available for the past year, but 49 were earned in 2009-10.)

Many methods

Across the nation, thousands of variations on the dual credit theme are in practice.

The goals are laudable:

• Help students earn college degrees sooner and at substantially lower cost.

• Encourage students who don’t think of themselves as college material by giving them encouragement and confidence, as well as an inexpensive head start.

But the research, though positive, is not definitive on the details:

• Hundreds of studies show students who earn college credit in high school are more likely to go to college and earn degrees.

• Unfortunately, only a small subset of the research attempts to correct for the fact that many of those students would have gone to college with or without dual credit, thus skewing the results. Still, the results are generally positive.

• But each program is different, and the research often can’t say which variations are effective. For example, one well-regarded study found positive results only for the students who went to the college campus to take the course with other college students. Most studies tested the effects of one or just a few courses, not a whole two years. Many of those studied have class entrance requirements for students. And the idea worked better for some subjects than others.

• Anecdotal accounts from across the country reveal students who conquered the academic material but had trouble arriving as college juniors without the necessary maturity and social experience. Others clearly had not experienced collegiate rigor in the college classes they took at their high schools.

The state of Oregon encourages dual credit, going so far as to score high schools on how many college credits their students earn before high school graduation. It’s considered a crucial tool in the effort to encourage more students to go to college by giving them the confidence that they can succeed.

The political pressure is great to satisfy the governor’s education reform goals by increasing the number of degrees awarded.

High school and college combined? For some students, for some courses, it clearly works well. But take it too far and we’ll have meaningless degrees. Local educators need to establish firm student admission requirements, teacher qualifications and passing standards.

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