College & Workforce Readiness

Only 8 Percent of Grads Take Enough College, Career Courses

By Catherine Gewertz — April 12, 2016 4 min read
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Only 8 percent of high school graduates complete a curriculum that prepares them well for college and the workplace. Even fewer complete those course sequences with grades that would suggest they mastered the content.

Those are the conclusions of a study published last week by the Education Trust, which advocates for policies that help low-income students. It raises questions about how well adults in schools are guiding students along pathways that provide strong preparation for college, job training, or the workplace.

The study analyzes transcript data from the federal High School Longitudinal Study of 2009, which tracks 23,000 students from 9th grade through graduation in 2013 and beyond. EdTrust researchers looked at the courses students took, and the grades they earned, to produce a rough proxy of college- and career-readiness.

Courses of Study

BRIC ARCHIVE

Nearly half of 2013 high school graduates took a curriculum that did not reflect college- or career-ready expectations.

Source: Education Trust

Concerned by the patterns they saw, the EdTrust researchers concluded that students were “meandering toward graduation” with a focus on accumulating credits, rather than on systematically building a strong base of knowledge and skills that will set them up well for life after graduation.

“High schools are prioritizing credit accrual, which treats graduation as the end goal,” write researchers Marni Bromberg and Christina Theokas. “Instead of being prepared for college and career, many of our students turn out to have been prepared for neither.”

Only 31 percent of students completed a college-ready curriculum, defined in the study as four years of English; three years each of math, science, and social studies; and two years of foreign language. Thirteen percent completed a “career ready” sequence, defined as three one-year courses that focus on one career field, such as health sciences. Eight percent completed both sets of those requirements. Another 47 percent, however, completed neither, or “no cohesive curriculum.”

The situation was worse for students from low-income families. Fifty-three percent of students in the lower 40 percent of family income complete “no cohesive curriculum,” compared with 44 percent in the upper 40 percent of income. Only 7 percent complete a curriculum sequence that prepares them for both career and college, compared with 10 percent of students who come from the upper 40 percent income bracket.

Once students’ grades are added to the mix, the picture gets even bleaker. When Bromberg and Theokas weeded out students who had completed a career-ready course of study, a college-ready one, or both, but earned less than a 2.5 grade point average in those classes, they concluded that an additional 14 percent of students were not well prepared for life after high school.

Courses as Key Barriers

More than half the students who don’t complete a college-ready course sequence—57 percent—are short two or more requirements, while the other 43 percent are missing just one requirement, the study found. Science was the subject that tripped up most of the students who were missing two or more courses. Fully 81 percent of those students didn’t take enough science credits, or the right science classes, to meet the three-course expectation of many colleges.

Among the students falling short of a college-ready sequence by only one class, math and foreign language were the most frequent stumbling blocks. Algebra 2, in particular, was a big one: One-third of the students didn’t take it. The students who missed that mark most often were the ones who didn’t take Algebra 1 in 8th grade, a key door-opener for higher math attainment.

A variety of policies and practices have the potential to remedy the course-taking patterns that are not serving students well, the EdTrust researchers write. At the state level, policymakers can make sure high school graduation requirements reflect the expectations of state colleges and universities. They can also work to articulate the requirements students need to enter various postsecondary career pathways.

At the K-12 school and district levels, administrators can analyze transcripts, course schedules, and credit policies to identify courses that students often fail and to see which groups of students have the most trouble accessing the powerful combination of both college-ready and career-ready course sequences.

Districts can also take steps to require course sequences that reflect their state’s higher education expectations, even if they’re more rigorous than their state’s diploma requirements.

And schools can focus more intently on postsecondary planning, instead of helping students accrue only the credits needed for a diploma. Schools also can ensure that counselors and teachers are aware of their state college and university systems’ admissions requirements.

David Hawkins, the executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, commended EdTrust for highlighting “an important symptom of trouble” in secondary schools. But he added that addressing it requires reversing a long pattern of underfunding for the training and support of counselors.

A version of this article appeared in the April 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as High School Coursework Seen Falling Short

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