College & Workforce Readiness

Only 8 Percent of Students Complete College- and Career-Ready Curriculum

By Catherine Gewertz — April 05, 2016 5 min read
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UPDATED Only 8 percent of U.S. 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 Tuesday by the Education Trust. 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 also at the grades they earned, to produce a rough proxy of college- and career-readiness.

Alarmed by the patterns of course-taking and grades 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 help them thrive after they get their diplomas.

“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 none, 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.

Examined by race, Latino students had the highest rate of ending up without a cohesive course of study: 52 percent, compared with 45 percent of white and 45 percent of African-American students. (The study did not include Asian students.)

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.

More than half of 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. Interesting patterns emerged among these two groups of students, too.

Science, Algebra 2 Are Common Stumbling Blocks

What tripped up the students who were missing two or more courses? Science. 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. Not surprisingly, the students who missed this mark most frequently were the ones who didn’t take Algebra 1 in 8th grade, a key door-opener for higher math attainment.

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. Counselors can play a pivotal role in students’ college planning and aspirations, as a NACAC report outlined.

But building counseling capacity requires reversing a long pattern of underfunding for the training and support of counselors, he said.

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 policy level:

Aligning the expectations of high school graduation expectations to college-entrance requirements. Many states don’t require students to take the courses, such as foreign language, that their public university systems require for entrance.

Defining career pathways. States can articulate the requirements students need to enter various postsecondary career pathways.

Practice at the school and district levels:

Teachers and counselors can conduct analyses of transcripts, course scheduling and credit policies to identify courses with the most failures, and to see which groups of students seem to have the most trouble accessing the powerful combination of both college-ready and career-ready course sequences.

Increasing graduation requirements. Even if a state’s graduation requirements fall short of its university or college systems’ expectations, a school district can increase its own requirements to reflect those admission requirements.

Counselors and teachers can focus more strongly on postsecondary planning, rather than on helping students accrue only the credits needed for a diploma. Schools can double down on counselors’ and teachers’ awareness of their state college and university systems’ admissions requirements.

Defining career pathways. Schools and districts can examine whether they have laid out clear career pathways for students and offer courses that provide the key knowledge and skills for those pathways. Helping career-and-technical-education teachers integrate academic content into their courses, and core academic teachers integrate applied career skills into theirs, is also part of that picture.

Re-examining grading policies. Schools can review their grading policies and bolster teacher professional development to ensure consistency in grading.

Image: Istockphoto

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.