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Is high school tough enough: Full report

Is the high school curriculum tough enough? Education initiatives as broad as the Common Core State Standards, grant organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and legislative actions like ESEA reauthorization all raise the issue in some way. Each of these initiatives agrees 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 is “rigorous” enough to produce such graduates?

While education experts often disagree on what truly constitutes “rigor,” the definition put forth by the National High School Alliance succinctly captures the essence of the concept. Rigor, according to the alliance, is shorthand for “an educational experience that leads to a common outcome – that all students are well prepared for post-secondary education, career and civic life” (National High School Alliance, 2006). Further, it states that rigor is marked by a “steadfast focus” on increasing achievement for all students through high-level content and instruction, and aligning high school requirements with college and work expectations.

The Center for Public Education decided to examine the research behind effective curricular strategies for promoting high school rigor. This paper, then, does not look at new state high school graduation requirements or state assessments. Instead, it focuses on strategies commonly used by districts to strengthen the high school curriculum: Advanced Placement courses, higher-level math courses, Dual Enrollment programs, and Early College High Schools. These are certainly not the only curricular strategies capable of toughening up the high school curriculum; however, each strategy has a strong following that, in most cases, ensures that local school boards will be talking about them – either currently or in the near future.

A closer look at “a rigorous curriculum”

While many decry the lack of rigor in the high school curriculum, it is difficult to find consensus about what rigor is.  Dictionary definitions of the word refer to strictness and severity, but when referring to academic rigor, many educators use phrases such as “challenging content” and “competitive curriculum.”  Educators, researchers and organizations have defined academic rigor in a number of ways:

  • Rigor is “the need for high school core courses to focus on the essential knowledge and skills needed for success in postsecondary education.” (ACT, 2007)
  • Rigor is “a demanding yet accessible curriculum that engenders critical-thinking skills as well as content knowledge.” (social research group MDRC as quoted in Hechinger Institute, 2009)
  • Rigor means that students should “raise questions, think, reason, solve problems and reflect.” (former Atlanta Superintendent Beverly L. Hall as quoted in Hechinger Institute, 2009)
  • A rigorous curriculum is “focused, coherent, and appropriately challenging.” (Michigan State Professor William Schmidt as quoted in Hechinger Institute, 2009)

State and local education agencies also worked to define rigor, most notably through the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).  After a lengthy development process, a set of standards were released in June 2010, and the vast majority of states have now adopted the standards, which “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn” in grades kindergarten through 12.  According to the Common Core Standards Web site, the standards are aligned with “college and work expectations,” and “include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills.” At this writing, 46 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the common core standards (For more information, see http://www.corestandards.org).

Researcher Clifford Adelman offers a more specific definition, but prefers the phrase “academic intensity” rather than rigor in his transcript studies (1999, 2006).  In his reports, he found that the academic intensity of a student’s high school courses was a better predictor of whether the student would complete a bachelor’s degree than class rank, grade point average, or test scores (Adelman, 1999, 2006).  This effect is especially true for African American and Hispanic students.  For the purposes of his study, Adelman defined the highest level of academic intensity as a transcript that included:
  • 3.75 or more Carnegie units of English;
  • 3.75 or more Carnegie units of mathematics, with the highest mathematics course being calculus, precalculus, or trigonometry;
  • 2.5 or more Carnegie units of science or more than 2.0 Carnegie units of core laboratory science (biology, chemistry, and physics);
  • more than 2.0 Carnegie units of foreign languages;
  • more than 2.0 Carnegie units of history and/or social studies;
  • more than 1 Advanced Placement course; and
  • no remedial English; no remedial mathematics. 
No matter the precise definition, the academic rigor of a student’s high school coursework has a long-lasting impact on future careers and earnings. Using a national sample, Carnevale and Desrochers (2002) showed a correlation between high school course-taking and later income.  The report found that workers in highly paid professional jobs had taken honors English courses, literature and composition, while twice as many workers in low-paying positions had taken remedial English or English as a Second Language courses as part of their high school studies.  Similarly, only 30 percent of low-paid or low-skilled workers had taken Algebra II or higher level math courses, yet 84 percent of highly paid professionals and 61 percent of well-paid, white-collar professionals had done so.

Coupled with the renewed focus on college readiness through trends such as the Common Core State Standards, all of this research, whatever language it uses, supports the basic assertion of the National High School Alliance and the definition this paper will use: that rigor should lead to the common outcome that all students are prepared for college, career and responsible citizenship.

Are high schools rigorous?

Whatever the definition of rigor, is there evidence that high schools are sufficiently rigorous? Multiple research and policy studies show that high schools are not producing enough graduates who are ready for college or entry into the 21st century workforce:

  • 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 recently reported that 3,000 high schools serving nearly 500,000 students offer no classes in Algebra II, a key subject included in the SAT and other indicators of college readiness (OCR, 2011).  In addition, more than 2 million students in 7,300 schools have no access to calculus classes, a component of many definitions of rigor.
  • Numerous studies show that many high school graduates start college with significant needs. More than one third (36 percent) of first-year college students reported taking some remedial coursework, and this percentage is higher – 42 percent -- among students at public two-year institutions (National Center for Education Statistics, 2008).  Students are most likely to report taking remedial courses in math.
  • Transcript analysis shows that students take further remedial courses after their first year in college and also under-report the number of remedial courses they take (Adelman, 2006).  For example, an earlier NCES report found that 53 percent of students take at least one remedial English or math class, based on their transcripts (NCES, 2001) and the California State University system found that 59 percent of its entering students were placed into remedial English or math in 2002 (California State University, 2003).
In addition, strategies used to increase high school rigor are often not available to all students. For instance, the OCR study cited above noted a large disparity in the number of schools offering Advanced Placement courses. A large number of high schools lack the funding and capacity to offer AP courses, and these schools tend to serve a disproportionate number of low-income students, students of color, and students with disabilities. For example, the OCR database showed that in Brookline, Mass., an affluent suburb of Boston, 19 percent of all students took at least one AP class in 2009. In Detroit, however, enrollment in AP courses was only 3 percent (Dervarics, 2011). Overall, 67 percent of U.S. high schools offer AP classes, meaning that fully one-third of these schools lack any such courses (Waits, Setzer, and Lewis, 2005).

Other oft-cited ingredients of rigor are sometimes lacking in American public high schools. Nearly 30 percent of high schools do not offer dual enrollment classes, in which students take rigorous college-level courses that provide both high school and college credit (Waits et al, 2005). School size is a major factor in the availability of these options. Overall, 82 percent of large high schools had dual-enrollment courses, while only 63 percent of small schools (those with under 500 students) had such offerings.

Some researchers also question whether the rigor of high-level courses is consistent throughout the nation’s high schools. There is no requirement, for instance, for a math course in one district to equal a similarly-named course in other schools. “Many [schools] offer Algebra II courses that, in content, are closer to Algebra I,” Adelman (1999) cautioned.  State-level data also raise some concerns about course content. For example, when the National Center for Educational Accountability examined transcripts and test scores, it found that 60 percent of low-income students in Texas who had completed Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry failed the state math test, which only covers Algebra I (Education Commission of the States and National Center for Educational Accountability, 2005).

The wide variability in high school offerings, combined with the data showing significant numbers of graduates lacking the skills needed to succeed, supports the need to increase high school rigor. But what strategies do that? Here are four popular strategies, where they are being used, and what research shows about their impact on student outcomes. 

Advanced Placement Courses

One of the most popular strategies to promote a rigorous curriculum is offering an extensive array of Advanced Placement courses. Started in 1955, the AP program developed as a partnership between the College Board and colleges and universities to “create assessments of college-level learning” – the AP exams – which now cover 37 subject areas (College Board, 2007).  This effort led to the creation of high school AP courses. Beginning in 2007, teachers must complete an AP Course Audit – with syllabi and other materials submitted to College Board – for each course offered by a high school (College Board AP Web site). Students who take AP courses are not required to take the end-of-course AP exams, though schools often encourage – and sometimes pay for – students to sit for these exams to determine the course’s impact.
A Brief Look at IB

Offered in 2 percent of U.S. high schools (Waits et al, 2005), the International Baccalaureate (IB) program nonetheless has its share of loyal followers. Developed in the late 1960s as an international standard of secondary education for children of diplomats and others stationed outside their home nations, IB now works with 3,305 schools in 141 countries. With three different levels of IB programs, these services reach just under 1 million students worldwide (International Baccalaureate, 2011).

The three levels include a primary year program for students age 3 to 12, a middle years program for students age 11 through 16, and the Diploma program for students age 16 to 19.  In contrast to AP, in which high schools offer individual college-level classes, IB courses are part of an integrated curriculum with each school’s program, developed through a multi-year process that includes site visits from the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO).  Once schools are authorized by the International Baccalaureate Organization, they pay an annual fee to support the program’s implementation. While the popularity of IB is growing – from 255 U.S. high schools in 2000 to 753 schools in 2009 -- it is much smaller than the AP program (National Research Council, 2002; International Baccalaureate, 2011).  Typically, the end result is attainment of an IB diploma in the senior year of high school, although treatment of IB courses varies in higher education.[1] 

Possibly due to its smaller size, there are few research reports that focus solely on IB; often IB students are lumped in with larger analyses of AP students. In its review of AP and IB, the National Research Council (2002) found no “systematic studies” that would allow conclusions on how IB students perform in upper-level college courses.   One descriptive study that separated IB students from those on an AP track (defined as taking at least six honors courses and two AP courses) found that Chicago public high school graduates of both programs had higher GPAs, ACT scores and qualifications for admission to selective colleges and universities (Roderick, Nagaoka, Coca, and Moeller, 2009).  Graduates of IB programs had an average GPA of 2.9 and typically scored a 21.8 on the ACT, compared with a 2.4 GPA and 17.6 ACT score for the system overall (AP students had a 3.0 GPA and 21.8 ACT score).  In addition, 58 percent of IB graduates had “qualifications that would give them access to selective or very selective colleges,” according to the report, compared with 64 percent of AP graduates and 23 percent of all Chicago public school graduates.

The absence of a national education curriculum has contributed to the popularity of AP courses as an indicator of quality. Since many high schools weight student grade point averages for AP courses, there is an incentive for students to take these courses. In addition, many selective colleges consider a student’s AP record in the admissions process. Geiser and Santileces (2004) point to the greater use of AP scores in admissions as one main reason the number of high school AP courses has increased so dramatically. From 1989 to 2011, the number of high schools participating in Advanced Placement doubled from 8,768 to  18,340 (College Board, 2011).  Although College Board does not collect data on actual enrollments in AP courses, it does provide the number of students who take exams. These numbers also have risen considerably, from 314,686 students taking 463,664 exams in 1989 to just under 2 million students sitting for  3.4 million exams in 2011.

Where is this strategy used?

The National Center for Education Statistics survey of public high schools (Waits et al 2005) reported that 67 percent offered AP courses. However, only 40 percent of small schools offered such courses. School location also is a factor. Eighty-seven percent of urban fringe schools offered AP courses, a higher rate than the rates in cities, towns or rural areas (77 percent, 72 percent, and 50 percent, respectively).  Schools in Central states were the least likely to offer AP courses (54 percent of schools), while those in the Northeast (84 percent of schools) were most likely to do so.

Geiser and Santileces (2004) describe how these disparities in availability of AP courses led the American Civil Liberties Union to file a class-action lawsuit in 1999 against the State of California (Daniel vs. California, 1999). The suit challenged the state for not providing sufficient access to AP courses and led to a major state-funded initiative supporting expansion of AP course offerings in low-performing schools, rural areas and other underserved regions of the state. In addition, other state governments and the federal government have recognized AP availability as important, and have implemented funding initiatives, policies and programs to expand access to low-income and minority students.

For instance, starting in FY2001, federal funds became available to support state and local efforts to expand access to AP programs for low-income students.  The Advanced Placement Incentive (API) Program supports state and local education agencies’ activities to increase participation of low-income students in both pre-AP, AP and IB courses and tests. Grants may support the following activities: (1) professional development for teachers; (2) curriculum development; (3) purchase of books and supplies; and (4) other activities directly related to expanding access to and participation in AP for low-income students. In FY2011, ED awarded more than $18.7 million to 12 new and 20 continuing grantees in this program.  The government has assessed the program’s impact largely through the calculation of the ratio of AP and IB tests taken in public high schools served by API grants to the number of seniors enrolled at those schools. In FY 2009, all but five of the 21 grantees increased this ratio (three had minor decreases, one was stagnant and another did not have complete data). Another federal program, the AP Test Fee Program, provides grants to states to enable them to pay Advanced Placement (AP) test fees for low-income students. In FY 2011, 43 states received a total of $23.3 million to cover all or part of the testing fees for low-income students in AP classes. Moreover, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education  (2006) noted that all but six states have “special efforts” to offer AP courses to underserved students.

Such programs have contributed to dramatic growth in AP participation. One federal grantee, Minnesota, 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 203 percent increase – compared with an increase of only 17 percent in the number of seniors that year.

As mentioned earlier, some researchers note that AP’s impact on the college admissions process also is a factor in its growth nationwide. Klopfenstein and Thomas (2006) state that a majority (including 98 percent of Texas public high schools) weight grades from AP courses more heavily than grades for other courses, and they said this may lead students to take more AP courses simply to improve their GPA.  In addition, Geiser and Santelices (2004) note that most selective colleges and universities “give special weight to AP and honors courses in admissions decisions, although the manner in which this information is used varies from institution to institution.” As a result, high schools may feel a need to expand the number of AP course offerings in response to pressure from students and parents.

What is the strategy’s impact?

Most of the studies tracking AP’s impact on students focus solely on students’ success in higher education. Nonetheless, given that this paper’s definition of rigor includes producing college-ready high school graduates, students’ performance in college is relevant. One cautionary note is that much of the research on Advanced Placement was conducted with financial support from the College Board. To the extent possible, this paper has sought to focus on studies from researchers not receiving financial support from this organization. Some of the studies with large sample sizes are summarized below:

Dougherty, Mellor, and Jian (2006) followed more than 67,000 8th graders in Texas to determine the impact of taking AP courses. Students who took AP courses were at least twice as likely to graduate from college in five years compared with those who did not.  The gains were particularly noteworthy for under-represented 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.  Similarly, only 8 percent of Hispanic students 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 completed an AP course and passed the exam. For low-income students, 7 percent of those who took neither an AP course nor the exam graduated in five years, compared with 27 percent of those who took an AP course but did not pass the exam and 46 percent of those who took an AP course and passed the exam.  (Comparable figures for white students are 21 percent, 47 percent, and 65 percent, respectively.) 


Some researchers have suggested the expansion of AP courses to disadvantaged students, arguing that it may be better to have under-prepared students struggle in a high-level class than excel in an average one. Buttressing this viewpoint is a belief that systemic supports (such as tutoring and mentoring) can ensure that struggling students are able to master the higher level content.  Two studies – Gonzalez, O’Connor and Miles (2001) and Dougherty et al (2006) -- reinforce this notion that such exposure to AP in any way is a positive.

Analyzing data from the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Gonzalez and his colleagues found that even those students who scored a 1 or 2 on their AP calculus and/or physics exam (considered failing on the 5-point scale) performed better in college than their peers who had not taken AP courses.  U.S. students who “failed” the AP Calculus exam still outperformed students in all other industrialized countries. In physics, those “failing” the AP Physics exam outscored students in more than half of participating countries.  Some state data within the U.S. have indicated benefits of this approach as well. In Dougherty’s 2006 report, for example, low-income students who graduated from Texas public schools in 1998 and received a 1 or 2 on an AP exam had a “20 percentage point higher college graduation rate than did students who did not take any AP course or exams.”

However, authors of two other studies note that some AP research may fail to control for the student’s non-AP curriculum (Klopfenstein and Thomas, 2006 and Geiser and Santelices, 2004 ).  Looking at 28,000 Texas high school graduates who attended 31 four-year Texas public institutions in the fall of 1999, Klopfenstein and Thomas found that students who took AP courses performed the same as students who took a non-AP curriculum strong in math and science.

Geiser and Santelices (2004) analyzed data from 81,445 students who enrolled in the University of California system between 1998 and 2001, with particular attention to finding relationships between AP course enrollment in high school and college performance and retention. The authors measured student success through first-year GPA and retention from first to second year of college. They found that just the number of AP and Honors courses on a student’s transcript did not predict college success. While strong scores on SAT II exams (subject-specific tests) and AP exams did make a difference, the paper then used regression analysis to control for factors such as socio-economic status and race and concluded there was little to no relationship between AP or honors enrollment in high school and performance or retention in college. However, they did find a relationship between AP exam scores and later performance in college courses in the same subject.

Finally, students who succeed in AP courses and enroll in college are likely to receive college credit, though no national data exists on how many do. “A majority” of public and private colleges and universities accept Advanced Placement for credit (WICHE, 2006), although policies vary widely by institution and even by departments within institutions. Some colleges and universities accept courses for which a student scores at least a 3 (out of 5) on the exam, while some require students to score a 5 for courses within their major. Others require students to take additional assessments before granting credit or allow a student to start studies at a higher level. Some colleges limit the number of credits a student can earn through AP.  For example, Syracuse University caps the number of college credits earned through AP at 30 (Dutkowsky, Evensky and Emmonds, 2008), while Allegheny College restricts the number of credits to 20 (Chute, 2007).  A survey by the National Research Council (2002) found that more than half of mathematics departments will grant credit to students with scores of 3 or higher on AP calculus exams; however, only one third of departments allow students to place into advanced courses without additional testing and/or interviews.

So what is AP’s impact? Given the popularity of AP courses, it would be helpful to see more research since it is challenging to control for self-selection factors. Though it is difficult to separate out the effects of AP coursework from the abilities of students motivated enough to take AP coursework, it does seem students are more prepared for college work after taking the courses. Also, research showing higher college success rates for African American and Hispanic students who took AP in high school is a particularly encouraging finding. However, as with all strategies examined here, AP coursework alone may not solve all the challenges of post-secondary success.

Dual Enrollment Programs

Dual enrollment programs also enable high school students to take college-level courses. Three types of arrangements typically exist for dual enrollment programs: college courses taught at the high school by faculty from partner colleges; college courses taught on the partner college campus; and college courses taught through distance learning (via the Internet or television).

A survey from the National Center for Education Statistics (Waits et al, 2005) found in 2002-03 that, typically, dual enrollment courses were taught on a high school campus (74 percent) while nearly one-fourth (23 percent) were offered on the campus of a post-secondary institution. Only 4 percent were available through distance education. Any one of these arrangements can be particularly helpful in rural areas, where high schools may lack the staff or facilities to offer certain higher-level math/science courses or fourth-year language programs.

Where is this strategy used?

Nationally, dual enrollment appears to be growing, although accurate data are hard to find and somewhat dated. In 2002-03, NCES undertook two surveys to document use of dual enrollment – one through a nationally representative survey of high schools via the Fast Response Survey System and a second targeting higher education institutions through a nationally representative sample of colleges and universities. In the high school survey, Waits et al (2005) found that 71 percent of public high schools had dual enrollment courses during 2002-03 with 1.2 million enrollments. Extrapolating data from this study, Kleiner and Lewis (2005) estimated that 813,000 high school students took courses at post-secondary institutions, the vast majority (680,000) participating through dual enrollment programs. Among dual enrollment students, 77 percent were taking college-level courses through public 2-year institutions compared with 15 percent via public four-year institutions and 8 percent through private four-year colleges and universities.[2]

Large schools were more likely than medium or small schools to offer dual credit courses, and schools with a lower share of minority students were more likely than high minority schools to offer dual enrollment options (Waits et al, 2005).  More than half of all states (29) recognize that disparities exist in the availability of dual enrollment courses and are considering and/or attempting to implement special efforts to reach underserved students with this option (WICHE, 2006).  For example, 11 states specifically target low-income students through their dual enrollment policies and programs, while others target other underserved students such as home-schooled students, students with disabilities and first-generation college students. This trend is consistent with heightened efforts by states to make dual enrollment a priority. Today all 50 states have policies on dual enrollment, up from 38 states in 2004 (Karp, Bailey, Hughes, and Fermin, 2004). State policies cover issues such as types of courses offered, instructor requirements, types of credit earned, academic eligibility, grade levels, course enrollment limits and payment of tuition and fees.

Nonetheless, parents bear at least some of the cost of dual enrollment programs. According to NCES, 64 percent of institutions with dual enrollment programs said parents and students were a source of tuition for such programs, with high schools and public school districts accounting for the remainder (Kleiner and Lewis, 2005). In Washington, tuition is provided by the state, although families must pay for fees and provide transportation. Through this hybrid arrangement, families saved an estimated $41.3 million in 2009-10, according to the state (Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, 2011).

What is the strategy’s impact?

As with research on Advanced Placement, little experimental research exists on the effects of dual enrollment. Most of the studies are correlational, based on a specific state or even a single institution. Studies with large sample sizes indicate there is value to dual enrollment:
  • Researchers at the University of Arizona found that students who had participated in dual enrollment programs experienced fewer declines in grade point average as they transitioned into higher education when compared to other University of Arizona freshmen (Puyear, Thor, and Mills, 2001).
  • Researchers at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University found beneficial effects of dual enrollment on high school graduation rates for students in Florida and New York  (Karp, 2007). Reviewing the performance of more than 300,000 dual enrollment students, the 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.
  • Researchers at the Oregon University System (OUS, 2010) examined the college participation and performance of 15,707 students attending an Oregon college or university whose college transcripts indicated they had taken a dual credit course while in high school. The researchers found that dual credit students posted higher college participation rates and higher first-year college retention rates than high school graduates overall. Dual credit students also had higher GPAs in their first year of college. The study did control for student demographics and “academic strength” (measured using GPA, SAT scores, and Advanced Placement credit). Dual enrollment students were 17 percent more likely to persist to the second year of college than those who did not have such courses in high school.
According to the research available, it seems that dual enrollment programs have many benefits, such as expanding the number and type of courses available to students, preparing them for the academic rigor of college, and building study skills for furthering their education. Significantly, dual enrollment also can lower the cost of earning a college degree by allowing students to earn credit while still in high school and possibly shorten the time to degree completion.

Early College Programs

Building Success in El Paso, Tex.

With one-third of all its children living in poverty, El Paso County’s number of low-income youth is much higher than the national average (Center for Public Policy Priorities, 2011). Yet it also is home to one of the greatest success stories in the early college movement – Mission Early College High School.

Using a proficiency-based curriculum that moves students into college-level work when they are ready – usually by junior and senior year – Mission students have made some impressive gains. They outperform their peers from traditional schools on key indicators of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) assessment. Forty-two percent achieved “commended” status on the math TAKS in 2009-10, compared with 29 percent of all Texas students (Jobs for the Future, 2011).

In addition, 87 percent of Mission graduates in 2010 enrolled immediately in college, compared with 57 percent of graduates statewide, JFF reports. Most of these students also had earned college credit while in high school. Through the early college program, Mission High students have taken more than a dozen college courses, such as calculus, anatomy, genetics, literary analysis, macroeconomics, and Spanish.

The program has achieved these gains despite several challenges: 80 percent of students are from low-income families, and 85 percent are first in their families to attend college. JFF notes that the college courses have particularly importance for these families, since students can accumulate credits at little or no cost.
A similar, though more focused, strategy  is the fledgling Early College High School program offered in some public U.S. school districts during the past decade. The principle behind these programs is to offer engaging, rigorous courses early in students’ high school careers that prepare them to take college courses before high school graduation – sometimes allowing them to earn an associate’s degree in the process.

Where is the strategy used?

These programs have largely been supported by philanthropic organizations. One of the main drivers is the Early College High School Initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with other partners such as Carnegie Corporation of New York, Ford Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and other local foundations. Managed by Jobs for the Future (JFF), the initiative since 2002 has started or redesigned more than 230 schools in 28 states and the District of Columbia.

Admissions and tuition policies vary across the schools in the program (Chmelynski, 2004), and the student population can have many different characteristics. Some programs target students who are highly motivated and looking for acceleration, while others are aimed towards at-risk students or dropouts. Students receive individual counseling and support and often attend tuition-free, with other benefits such as free transportation and a laptop computer. By providing targeted supports and removing financial barriers, the Gates Foundation wants to increase the percentage of low-income students who attend college. Schools are generally located on or near college campuses, providing students with access to all college facilities. Admission varies, as some require transcripts and interviews, others have residency requirements, and one has a lottery to admit students from more than 45 school districts.

According to Jobs for the Future, which manages the Early College High School Initiative for eight partner organizations, these schools enroll students who have traditionally been underrepresented in higher education. In 2009, students of color represented about 70 percent of early college students in programs under this initiative, while 60 percent of students are from low-income families (Webb and Mayka, 2011). Most early college high schools (75 percent) partner with two-year colleges, although some work with four-year colleges and universities or multiple institutions.

What is the strategy’s impact?

So far, available data show that these programs have had success in educating at-risk students. 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).

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 of students (Webb and Mayka, 2011). Among these students, 24 percent earned an associate’s degree or two years of college credit while in high school, and 44 percent earned at least one year of college credit. Nakkula (2011) also found that students from these programs had learned coping strategies in high school that led them to seek help from teachers, use writing centers and other campus resources, and restrict their work hours to accommodate their schoolwork.

State-by-state data also show positive gains. Among 900 students graduating from early college high schools in Texas, 95 percent had already earned some college credit and more than one-third earned an associate's degree. Students from these high schools also were more likely than a comparison group of peers to achieve “commended” status on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), the state assessment (JFF, 2011). (For a look at one school’s success, see sidebar, this page).

In North Carolina, which has 71 early college high schools, researchers noted that five design principles are important for the success of these initiatives (Le and Frankford, 2011):

  • Each staff member takes responsibility for preparing every student for college;
  • Teachers use consistent instructional strategies to accelerate learning;
  • Students have access to intensive, individualized support;
  • Students receive a consistent message that they must take full ownership of their learning and their time;
  • Staff collaborate beyond “institutional borders.”

Because this strategy is small and based on philanthropy rather than a system-wide change in schools, it, too, does not promise to solve all the challenges of post-secondary success. However, it is an encouraging sign that students can handle, and benefit from, a more rigorous high school curriculum.

Higher-Level Math

Many school districts have recognized the importance of providing students with high-level math courses. Adelman (1999 and 2006) analyzed national samples of college students’ high school transcripts and found that taking a math course beyond the level of Algebra II (such as trigonometry or pre-calculus) doubled the odds that a student entering college would complete a bachelor’s degree.

Moreover, Adelman (1999 and 2006) identified a five-rung “High 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.”  [3]

Where is this strategy used?

As noted earlier, recent U.S. Education Department Office for Civil Rights data show that 3,000 high schools serving nearly 500,000 students offer no classes in Algebra II  In his 2006 study, Adelman noted that African American and Hispanic students are much less likely to attend high schools that offer calculus and trigonometry.  While 59 percent of white students attended high schools that offered calculus, for example, the rates were lower for African American and Hispanic students at 51 percent and 45 percent, respectively. Similarly, only 60 percent of Hispanic students had access to a trigonometry course at their high schools, compared with 77 percent of white students and 67 percent of African Americans (Adelman, 2006). 


Looking at data based on course enrollments, a study from the National Center for Education Statistics (Dalton, Ingels, Downing, and Bozick, 2007) found that fewer than half of African American, Hispanic, and Native American graduates had taken math beyond Algebra II, compared with 69 percent of Asian and 55 percent of white graduates. Similarly, only one third (33 percent) of students from disadvantaged families take math beyond Algebra II, compared with 72 percent of affluent students.

While the uneven access raises equity issues, the quality and rigor of the courses is another concern among several researchers. Jean Rutherford of the National Center for Educational Accountability reported that in Texas, 57 percent of Hispanics, 65 percent of African Americans and 60 percent of low-income students with credits on their transcripts for both geometry and Algebra II failed the state math assessment, which only covers Algebra I (Education Commission of the States, 2005).  Likewise, Schneider (2009) examined high school transcripts collected as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and found that while more high school students are completing a greater number of high-level math courses and earning higher grades, these students are scoring the same on NAEP as students did in 1973.

What is the strategy’s impact?

A large-scale study linking high-level math with performance on college-entrance exams showed the positive benefits of taking more rigorous courses. The research focused on seniors at 400 high schools who had higher-than-expected increases in math scores on the ACT. When looking at transcript data, the study found that students improved their ACT mathematics scores by an average of 4.2 points (from 17.4 to 21.6) after taking Algebra II (ACT, 2007). The study also found that students at these schools 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. Three-fourths of students with coursework of Algebra II or greater returned for a second year of college, compared with 66 percent among all ACT test-takers.

As schools consider their strategies to encourage higher-level math coursetaking, one positive example is the National Science Foundation-funded expansion of the Algebra Project. Created by civil rights leader Robert Moses, the project targets students who enter high school performing in the bottom quartile on math assessments. The initial cohort at a low-performing high school in Jackson, Miss., focused on acceleration rather than remediation for students, with 90 minutes of math instruction every day and intensive after-school and summer institutes.  At the end of four years, Algebra Project seniors were five times as likely as their comparison group peers (assigned based on schedule) to take college prep math courses such as geometry and pre-calculus.  With an NSF grant awarded in 2009, the project is expanding to two high schools in Los Angeles and one each in Mansfield, Ohio; Eldorado, Ill.; and Ypsilanti, Mich. External evaluation results for this cohort are not yet available.

Recently, one high-achieving district announced plans to boost Algebra II completion after an in-depth review of its data. Montgomery County, Md., Public Schools identified Algebra II completion with a grade of C or higher as one of the keys to college readiness, instituting a program to encourage more students to do so (Von Secker, 2010). Based on its analysis of almost 34,000 students, MCPS found that students who completed Algebra II with a C grade or higher were less likely to need math remediation upon college entry.  For example, 89 percent of students who did not complete Algebra II with a C or higher were identified as likely candidates for remedial math based on their SAT scores, compared with a rate of only 31 percent for those who earned a C or higher in the course. Similarly, students were more likely to enroll in college (93 percent vs.73 percent), more likely to stay in college beyond their first year (81 percent vs. 42 percent), and more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree (67 percent vs. 19 percent) when they posted moderate to high achievement in Algebra II while in high school.

While the data is again correlational, the strategy of increasing high school rigor in math does show positive effects, and the strategy is based in the schools themselves. Extending the push for rigor – with appropriate support -- throughout the curriculum might also have positive effects.

What should school boards do?

In today’s education landscape, many are beginning to re-think the high school experience. From Advanced Placement courses to dual enrollment, early college high schools and even higher-level math, the aim is to expose students to concepts, curricula, and ideas that will help them succeed in college or lead to a productive career. This emphasis is reflected in many trends across the educational policy spectrum, such as development of a “K-16” focus, as well as the Common Core State Standards, in which most U.S. states are adopting strategies designed to produce college- and career-ready high school graduates.

While most of the research discussed in this paper focuses on college success, it’s noteworthy that much other research (such as the Center’s report Defining a 21st century education) has firmly established that the skills needed to succeed in college are the same skills needed to succeed in an entry-level job. While we would certainly like to see more research exploring the effects of rigor on students who immediately enter the workplace, we feel that research on college success, in the absence of that, makes a reasonable proxy.

And the research, limited as it is, is positive. For school board members, much of the research summarized here illustrates the positive gains of AP, dual enrollment, early college high schools and higher-level math programs. Nonetheless, given fiscal constraints in an era of limited budgets, here are several practical recommendations and conclusions for school boards:

  • Access. Three thousand U.S. high schools do not even offer classes in Algebra II, a basic component of a rigorous curriculum. Larger schools and those with a lower portion of 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, in Texas, Hispanic students passing an AP exam were nearly seven times more likely to graduate 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 look at issues of 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. The U.S. Department of Education has the AP Incentive program, with funding for low-income districts that want to expand their courses. All states have established policies on dual enrollment that govern funding and access (Academic Pathways to Access and Student Success website). As recently as 2005, 10 states allowed both K-12 and public post-secondary institutions to receive per-student funding for dual enrollment courses, a powerful incentive for participation (Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education, 2005). Educators can benefit from knowing about these state and federal funding streams.
  • Advocacy. More and more groups are discussing college and career readiness standards, and the Common Core standards are starting to be implemented.  For example, 45 states are participating in at least one of two state-led consortia (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium) that are developing K-12 English and math assessments aligned to the common core standards which reflect readiness for college and career. Whether by monitoring this trend or by providing direct input, school board members can play a role as these discussions move toward implementation.
  • K-12/College Links. Districts should review data on how their graduates perform in the first year of college. Higher education persistence rates, grade point averages, and college completion rates are other data sets of interest. According to the Data Quality Campaign, data systems in 49 states are now able to connect high school and post-secondary data, and 39 states are set up to provide feedback reports to high schools, although many high schools still don’t receive this information. At a relatively low cost, the National Student Clearinghouse can provide aggregate data on the post-secondary performance of a school’s graduates. All high schools could benefit from this report on graduates’ performance.
  • Data. As part of its research on AP and related issues, the Western Interstate 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. It also identified the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics as the logical agent to lead such an effort. Doing so would not only bolster the research base, but offer proof of where schools’ limited dollars are best spent to promote students’ success.

[1] The IB program is not as well known or understood by the higher education community, and the National Research Council review (2002) found that only 750 colleges and universities recognized IB scores, compared with 2,900 post-secondary institutions that accepted AP test scores.

[2] High school students who enrolled in college courses and were treated as regular college students were not considered to be in a dual enrollment program.

[3] It is important to note that as with research on Advanced Placement and dual enrollment, the bulk of studies on math enhancement are correlational.  It is not clear that taking Algebra II helps students do better or whether smart and motivated students tend to take courses beyond Algebra II.)

This report was prepared for the Center for Public Education by Eileen M. O’Brien and Chuck Dervarics. O’Brien is an independent education researcher and consultant in Alexandria, Virginia. Much of her work has focused on access to quality education for disadvantaged and minority populations. O’Brien has a Master of Public Administration from George Washington University and a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from Loyola University, Chicago. Chuck Dervarics is an education writer and former editor of Report on Preschool Programs, a national independent newsletter on pre-k, Head Start, and child care policy. As a writer and researcher, he has contributed to case studies and research projects of the Southern Education Foundation, the American Council on Education, and the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, often focusing on issues facing disadvantaged populations. Dervarics has a Bachelors degree from George Washington University.

Posted: March 2012

© Center for Public Education, 2012

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