College & Workforce Readiness

Report: High Schools Must Demand More

By Vaishali Honawar — January 04, 2005 5 min read
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States desperately need to raise the bar on high school graduation requirements to better prepare students for college and the workforce, a report says, contending that a wide gap exists between graduating students’ skills and the challenges of the postsecondary world.

“The Expectations Gap - A 50-State Review of High School Graduation Requirements” is available from Achieve, Inc., along with an executive summary. ()

In all 50 states and the District of Columbia, students can earn a high school diploma without acquiring the knowledge and skills needed for higher education and jobs, according to “The Expectations Gap—A 50-State Review of High School Graduation Requirements.” Achieve, a Washington-based group formed by governors and business leaders that advocates strong academic standards, released the report Dec. 21.

At least one expert blamed the conclusion partly on states’ refusal to focus on high school reform. “So far, most of the reform energy and resources have been poured into elementary schools under the misguided idea that if we get students on a good start, high schools can fix themselves,” said Kati Haycock, the executive director of Education Trust, a Washington-based group that seeks to improve academic opportunity.

The Achieve report recommends a rigorous diet of four years of grade-level mathematics and English for high school students. It says that should include Algebra 1, geometry, Algebra 2, data analysis and statistics, as well as literature, writing, reasoning, logic, and communications skills.

The authors reviewed high school course requirements in all the states and the District of Columbia. They found that only five states—Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, and West Virginia—require 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.

In the past two decades, states haven’t made significant efforts to boost high school course requirements, said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Clinton. “But it has become very clear in the time since that students who graduate from high school need to have a common set of knowledge and skills needed in the workplace and for college,” he said.

Acknowledging that the job won’t be easy, he urged state leaders to work with postsecondary officials and employers to define the learning required for graduates to succeed after high school, and without a need for remedial study.

The report 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.

Set Up to Fail?

States also should encourage all students, particularly those who are low-performing, to pursue accelerated options for earning postsecondary credit in high school. Those options could include Advanced Placement courses or early-college high schools, which allow students to earn two years of college credits while earning a high school diploma. (“Gates Foundation Expands Support of ‘Early College’ High Schools,” and “Study: AP Classes Alone Don’t Aid College Work,” both in this issue).

Matthew Gandal, the executive vice president of Achieve and a senior editor of the study, said states would benefit from monitoring the progress of individual students 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, established by Achieve, the Education Trust, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation last year, found that states and employers each year spend millions of dollars 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, according to American Diploma Project data.

Mr. Gandal noted concerns that raising high school graduation requirements could hurt students and increase dropout rates. But the real disservice, he said, is to hand students diplomas that set them up for failure in later life.

“It is a lot more fair to give them rigorous standards in high schools to ensure they succeed later on,” he said.

The report adds that employers say that most high school graduates are inadequately prepared to succeed in an increasingly competitive economy. It cites a 2002 study in which more than 60 percent of employers reported that recent graduates had poor math skills, and 75 percent pointed to poor grammar and writing skills.

Poor Work Skills

Nancy Hoffman, the vice president of transitions for the Boston-based group Jobs for the Future, which works to improve job opportunities for young people, said many studies show employers are dissatisfied with the skills of the young people they interview and thus do not hire them.

“Many young people end up in what we call dead-end ‘McJobs,’ where only limited reading, writing, math, and critical-thinking skills are needed,” she said.

Achieve’s report also says that the absence of a rigorous high school curriculum hurts minority students and those from low-income families the most.

Taking a rigorous high school curriculum that includes math at least through Algebra 2, the report says, cuts in half the gap in college-completion rates between African-American and Latino students, at the lower end of the achievement scale, and white students, at the upper end. But, it points out, black and Hispanic youngsters are significantly less likely than Asian and white students to take rigorous college- and work-preparatory curricula.

The report also holds out hope for change: Arkansas, Indiana, and Texas, it says, will soon make a rigorous college- and work-prep curriculum the norm.

A version of this article appeared in the January 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as Report: High Schools Must Demand More

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