Report Cites 'Expectations Gap' in High School Preparation

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All states currently allow high school students to earn a diploma even though they have not mastered the skills and knowledge they will need to succeed at college and in the workplace, a new report says.

To be fully prepared for work and college, students should take a minimum of four years of rigorous mathematics and four years of grade-level English, according to “The Expectations Gap—A 50-State Review of High School Graduation Requirements,” which was released today by Achieve, Inc. The Washington-based nonprofit group advocates strong academic standards.

The four math courses should cover Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, and data analysis and statistics, and the English courses should cover literature, writing, reasoning, logic, and communications skills.

The report reviewed high school course requirements in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and found that only five states—Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, and West Virginia—now require all students to take four years of math. Only six states—Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Texas and West Virginia—require four years of grade-level English.

Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, said states should work with postsecondary officials and employers to define the knowledge and skills needed for graduates to succeed after high school, and without the need for remediation.

“We should no longer have an elementary and secondary school system that leaves a majority of high school students unprepared,” said Mr. Cohen, who cautioned that there is no silver-bullet solution, and that implementing the changes would take a great deal of time and effort by the states.

Set Up to Fail?

The report also recommends that states take a hard look at the core content of required high school courses to ensure that educators have a common understanding of what students need to learn. States also should encourage all students, particularly those who are low performing, to pursue accelerated options for earning postsecondary credit in high school. This could include Advanced Placement courses and dual-enrollment programs, as well as early college high schools, which allow students to earn two years of college credits while earning a high school diploma.

Matthew Gandal, the executive vice president of Achieve and a senior editor of the study, said states would benefit by monitoring the progress of individual students all the way from kindergarten through college to collect data that could then be used to strengthen high school course offerings.

“There should be a data system to track how students do once they graduate and go to college—how many students are required to take remedial courses, and how many are successful in earning a degree,” he said.

The American Diploma Project, created by Achieve, the Education Trust, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, earlier this year found that states and employers each year spend millions on remedial courses to cover what students should already have learned in high school. As many as 28 percent of college freshmen are placed in remedial courses and roughly half of all college students do not graduate at all.

Mr. Gandal said there are concerns that raising graduation requirements could hurt students and increase dropout rates. But the real disservice, he added, is to hand students a diploma that sets them up for failure in later life.

“If students get a diploma and can’t get a footing in the workplace, we are doing them a disservice,” he said. “It is a lot more fair to give them rigorous standards in high schools to ensure they succeed later on.”

Mr. Cohen added there is evidence that students who take more rigorous courses in high school have higher grade point averages in college and are more likely to graduate.

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