College & Workforce Readiness

Only 8 Percent of Grads Take Enough College, Career Courses

By Catherine Gewertz — April 12, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Webinar
Stronger Together: Integrating Social and Emotional Supports in an Equity-Based MTSS
Decades of research have shown that when schools implement evidence-based social and emotional supports and programming, academic achievement increases. The impact of these supports – particularly for students of color, students from low-income communities, English
Content provided by Illuminate Education
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
College & Workforce Readiness Whitepaper
Root Causes of Students Stopping Out of College
Many postsecondary access and success programs successfully support students to enroll in a degree or credential program after high schoo...
Content provided by OneGoal
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion The High School Network Providing Students With On-the-Job Training
Rick Hess speaks with Cristo Rey Network President Elizabeth Goettl about the network's innovative work-study program.
7 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness From Our Research Center Class of COVID: 2021's Graduates Are Struggling More and Feeling the Stress
COVID-19 disrupted the class of 2020’s senior year. A year later, the transition to college has in some ways gotten worse.
7 min read
Conceptual illustration of young adults in limbo
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness From Our Research Center Helping Students Plan How to Pay for College Is More Important Than Ever: Schools Can Help
Fewer and fewer high school graduates have applied for federal financial aid for college since the pandemic hit.
4 min read
Conceptual Illustration of young person sitting on top of a financial trend line.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision<br/>