H.S. Courses Seen as Disconnected From College Demands

By Lynn Olson — February 21, 2006 4 min read
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A new study from the U.S. Department of Education underscores the need for much stronger ties between the curriculum that students take in high school and what is expected in their first year of college.

Its conclusions are based on an examination of factors that influence whether young people eventually earn a four-year degree.

Titled “The Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion From High School Through College,” the study follows a nationally representative sample of students from the high school class of 1992 to their mid-20s in December 2000. It uses data from students’ high school and college transcripts to track the academic trajectory of students who attended a four-year college at any time, including those who started out in community colleges.

“The Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion From High School Through College” is available from the U.S. Department of Education.

The findings echo those of a 1999 Education Department report, which followed a sample of students in the high school class of 1982 through 1993. Both studies found that taking a full slate of academically intense courses in high school—including mathematics beyond Algebra 2 and at least three years of laboratory science—was the most important precollegiate determinant of whether students graduated from college.

But the new study, released Feb. 14, emphasizes that it’s not enough to count the credits that students earn in broad subject areas.

“We have to know not only what is being taught, but whether it matches the demands of lower-division coursework in colleges and community colleges,” says its author, Clifford A. Adelman, a senior research analyst with the department who wrote both the new report and the 1999 study. The views expressed in the report represent those of Mr. Adelman, and not necessarily the positions of the department.

Curricular ‘Disconnect’

Mr. Adelman found a serious lack of connection between the curriculum students take in high schools and what they encounter in the first year of college. He compares the disconnect to the moving walkways in airports, seemingly set up “so that the passengers stepping mindlessly off the first and heading to the second trip, stumble into the moving handrail, and desperately grasp at their luggage so that it doesn’t get stuck in the space between the two segments.”

He recommends that four-year and community colleges make their expectations for first-year students in a range of lower-division courses much more public—as expressed through examination questions, papers, and lab assignments. The report suggests making those examples part of college-admissions packets, publicity brochures, and Web sites.

“This is where the colleges and community colleges have got to step in and put this stuff on their Web sites,” Mr. Adelman said in an interview last week. “Going out there from the point of view of the high school junior or senior who wants to know: Number one, how do I get here from there, and what do I need to do to prepare?”

The report emphasizes the need to ratchet up challenging academic content in high schools, particularly for poor and minority students, who are far less likely than their white and better-off peers to attend schools that offer a rigorous curriculum.

Students whose families rank in the bottom fifth socioeconomically, for example, are much less likely to attend high schools that offer any math above Algebra 2 than are students from the top socioeconomic level, the study found.

Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, said the study “adds significantly to our knowledge about what is going on in college preparation, persistence, and completion.”

“It suggests strongly that states that are out there now passing requirements for four years of English and three years of math and two years of science will be disappointed in what they actually get in terms of improving preparation and persistence to degrees,” unless they pay far more attention to course content, he said.

Dual Enrollment

The study also examines what postsecondary factors contribute to degree completion. Among its findings: Entering college directly from high school, remaining continuously enrolled, and earning more than 20 credits by the end of the first 12 months of enrollment, or roughly seven courses, all boost the chances of earning a degree.

Those are reasons to begin the transition process in high school, by expanding the availability of Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment programs, Mr. Adelman argues, so that students can enter higher education with a minimum of six college-level credits already completed.

“With six credits of dual-enrollment coursework,” he writes, “even part-time students can reach 20 credits in the first calendar year.”

The analysis also underscores the importance of taking advanced math courses, not just in high school, but also in postsecondary education.

Math Called Key

By the end of the second year of college, the analysis found, 71 percent of students who eventually earned a bachelor’s degree had earned at least some credits in college-level mathematics, compared with just 38 percent of those who did not earn a degree.

“This doesn’t stop at the matriculation line,” Mr. Adelman said of the value of advanced study in math.

According to the report, 95 percent of high school graduates say they will enter some form of postsecondary education, and fully 80 percent do so by age 26. Of those who attend a four-year college at any time, 66 percent earn a degree by their mid-20s.

But many take a mobile route: Fifty-eight percent attend more than one school, including one out of five students who start in a community college.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as H.S. Courses Seen as Disconnected From College Demands


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