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Is high school tough enough: At a glance

Is the high school curriculum tough enough? Education initiatives as broad as the Common Core State Standards, grant organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and legislative actions like ESEA reauthorization all raise the issue in some way. All of these initiatives agree that high schools should produce “college and career-ready graduates,” and that “a rigorous curriculum” is the way to do so.

Beyond that, the picture gets murky. What do those two phrases mean? How do we determine what makes a prepared high school graduate, and how do we know if the current high school curriculum produces them?

The following facts should raise some concerns:
  • Almost two-fifths of high school graduates “are not adequately prepared” by their high school education for entry-level jobs or college-level courses, according to a survey of college instructors and employers (Peter D. Hart Research Associates, 2005).
  • Many low-income schools lack access to a rigorous high school curriculum by any definition. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights Data recently reported that 3,000 high schools serving nearly 500,000 students offer no classes in Algebra II, a key subject encompassed by the SAT and other indicators of college readiness (OCR, 2011).

If this is the case, what kind of high school curriculum would produce prepared graduates? The research has focused on four popular strategies: AP courses, higher math courses, dual enrollment programs, and early college high schools. Most studies are correlative, and most simply measure graduates’ success in college. But it’s been well established that graduates entering good jobs need the same skills as graduates entering college, so the findings can be instructive when considering career-readiness, too. Here are some of the key lessons:

AP Courses

  • Using AP courses as a proxy for a rigorous curriculum continues to be a popular strategy. Nationally, AP enrollments are five times what they were twenty years ago. Minnesota , for example, reported that the number of high school students who took AP or IB tests rose from 2,114 in 2009 to 6,401 in 2010 – a dramatic 203 percent increase – compared with an increase of only 17 percent in the number of seniors.
  • Taking an AP course results in better performance in the subject. U.S. students who “failed” the AP Calculus exam still outperformed students from all other industrialized countries on the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
  • AP courses do show results in college, though study results are mixed. One study found that students who took AP courses were at least twice as likely to graduate from college in five years compared with those who did not take an AP course.  The gains were particularly noteworthy for some minority and low-income students. For African-Americans, only 10 percent of those who did not take an AP course graduated in five years, compared with 37 percent of those who took an AP course but did not pass the exam and 53 percent of those who took an AP course and passed the exam. Comparable results exist for Hispanic and low-income students.
  • An AP curriculum is not a silver bullet, nor is it the only strategy. Klopfenstein and Thomas found that students who took AP courses performed the same as students with a non-AP curriculum strong in math and science.

Rigorous Math

  • Math makes a difference. Examining students’ transcripts, Adelman (1999 and 2006) identified a five-rung math ladder consisting – from highest to lowest – of calculus, pre-calculus, trigonometry, Algebra II and less than Algebra II. He noted, “For each rung of High Math climbed, the odds of completing a bachelor’s degree increased by a factor of 2.59 to 1….Finishing a course beyond the level of Algebra II more than doubles the odds that a student who enters postsecondary education will complete a bachelor’s degree.”
  • The effects of rigorous courses persist. A large-scale study linking high-level math with performance on college-entrance exams showed the positive benefits of rigorous courses. The study found that students who took Algebra II or a higher-level math course were more likely than all ACT test-takers to enroll in college the following fall and return to college for their second year.

Dual Enrollment

  • Dual enrollment, where students take classes in high school that can count for college credit, is a popular strategy. Waits et al (2005) found that 71 percent of public high schools had dual enrollment courses during 2002-03 with 1.2 million enrollments.
  • Dual enrollment classes are mainly conducted on high school campuses. Typically, dual enrollment courses were taught on a high school campus (74 percent), while nearly one-fourth (23 percent) were offered on a college campus.
  • Community colleges play a big role. Among dual enrollment students, 77 percent were taking college-level courses through public two-year institutions compared with 15 percent via public four-year institutions and 8 percent through private four-year colleges and universities.
  • Dual enrollment has positive effects on persistence. Reviewing the performance of more than 300,000 dual enrollment students, a study found that students with these courses were more likely than others to graduate from high school, enroll in college, begin college at a four-year institution and stay in college at least two years. They also were more likely to enroll in college full-time, post higher GPAs, and earn more post-secondary credits than their peers.

Early College High School Programs

  • Not just courses, but a degree. Early college high school programs offer students the chance to earn an associate degree or other college credential while in high school. They have largely been supported by philanthropic organizations, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • Higher graduation and enrollment rates. Overall, 92 percent of students who entered early college high schools as 9th graders graduated in 2008 (JFF, 2011), which compares favorably to the 72 percent rate reported nationally (Editorial Projects in Education, 2011). In addition, 86 percent of graduates from Early College High Schools enrolled in college in the fall following high school, compared with a national rate of 66 percent (JFF, 2011).
  • Higher completion rates. Students also showed favorable progress in a study of nearly 6,200 early college high school graduates from schools with at least one four-year cohort. Among these students, 24 percent earned an associate degree or two years of college credit while in high school, and 44 percent earned at least one year of college credit.

It’s important to note that none of these four strategies has been thoroughly examined. (For example, much of the research on AP classes is sponsored by the College Board.) There is also the question of self-selection (that is, do these students do better because of their internal motivation?). However, the strategies show enough promise that school boards interested in applying them should consider these practical questions:

  • Access. Three thousand U.S. high schools do not even offer classes in Algebra II, a basic component of a rigorous curriculum. Larger, lower-minority schools often have more access to a rigorous curriculum and the strategies discussed in the paper. Addressing these issues first, particularly access to Algebra II, is imperative for our nation’s schools.
  • Equity. Advanced courses can make a difference with many minority and low-income students. For example, Hispanic students who passed an AP exam were nearly seven times more likely to graduate from  college than their non-participating counterparts. Such findings buttress the argument that exposure to higher-level courses can translate into long-term gains for underrepresented students. School boards should consider equity when deciding where and how to implement these strategies.
  • Funding. For several of the strategies examined here, funding from federal or state governments is available. Educators can benefit from knowing about state and federal funding streams such as the AP Incentive, or the Academic Pathways to Access and Student Success Web site.
  • Advocacy. More and more groups are discussing college and career readiness standards, and most states have adopted the new Common Core Standards to take effect in 2014-15. Whether by monitoring this trend or by providing direct input, school board members can play a role as implementation moves forward.
  • K-12/College Links. Forty-nine states are now able to link K-12 and post-secondary data, and 39 states provide feedback reports. Districts should review this data to see how well their graduates perform in two- and four-year colleges. This data can provide insights into the rigor of their high school preparation.
  • Data. As part of its research on AP and related issues, the Western Institute Commission for Higher Education called for a national effort to establish consistency in collecting, analyzing, and reporting on student participation in programs such as AP, IB, dual enrollment, and early college programs. Doing so would not only bolster the research base, but offer proof of where schools’ limited dollars are best spent to promote students’ success.

This fact sheet is based on a report written for the Center for Public Education by Chuck Dervarics and Eileen O'Brien. O’Brien and Dervarics are independent education researchers and writers in Alexandria, Virginia. The Center for Public Education is an initiative of the National School Boards Association.

March 2012

© Center for Public Education, 2012

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