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Are High Schools Failing Their Students?

— The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

The Need

Does earning a diploma guarantee that a high school graduate is ready for work and college? It should, for very practical reasons. Entrance requirements for colleges have increased. Employers expect more. Students must be able to communicate effectively, think critically, analyze and interpret data, and evaluate a variety of materials. Sixty-seven percent of new jobs in the market today require some postsecondary education (Achieve Inc., 2006).

Yet despite these demands, many high school graduates are inadequately prepared to continue their education or to enter the workforce. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), at least 28 percent of students entering four-year public colleges in the fall of 2000 were required to take remedial courses when they started, especially in mathematics and language arts, as did 42 percent of those enrolled in two-year public colleges (NCES, 2004). Employers also have noted that many recent high school graduates do not possess the basic reading, writing, and mathematics skills they need to function on the job; and providing remedial training to address this problem costs employers millions of dollars each year (The American Diploma Project [ADP], 2004).

Growing concern about the academic proficiency of high school graduates has placed high school reform at the forefront of the education policy agenda. Critics have begun to question the degree of academic rigor in our nation’s high schools, and many states and school districts are looking for ways to address this issue. This month’s newsletter explores the issue of academic rigor and highlights current efforts to challenge and support high school students.

Rigorous Curriculum for All

It is no secret that a challenging curriculum has a positive effect on student performance after high school. A study released by the U.S. Department of Education (Adelman, 1999), for example, found that “the academic intensity and quality” of a student’s course of study was a far more powerful predictor of bachelor’s degree attainment than class rank, grade point average, or test scores. And this impact is “far more pronounced” for African-American and Latino students than for any other group. A rigorous curriculum also predicts greater skill in the workforce and greater wage-earning potential. An extensive study conducted by ETS found that 84 percent of highly paid professionals and 61 percent of “well-paid, white-collar” professionals had taken Algebra II or higher level mathematics courses while only 30 percent of low-to-moderately skilled and low-paid workers had done so (ADP, 2004). These findings make a strong case for high schools nationwide to provide all students—not just those enrolled in “college prep”—with a challenging academic program.

What Does a Rigorous Curriculum Look Like?

A collaborative effort of Achieve Inc., The Education Trust, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the American Diploma Project (ADP) was created to investigate curricular reform in high schools. In 2004, it published Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts, which outlines in explicit terms “the English and mathematics [skills] that graduates must have mastered by the time they leave high school if they expect to succeed in postsecondary education or in high-performance, high-growth jobs” (p. 10). ADP concluded that a rigorous high school curriculum demands four years of mathematics courses—not only Algebra and Geometry, but also Data analysis and Statistics—and four years of English, including courses covering “language, communication, writing, research, logic, informational text, media, and literature” (p. 22). It recommends that school districts set high school graduation requirements aligned with both state standards and with the coursework required for incoming freshman at colleges and universities within their states.

Both Texas and Indiana have taken leadership roles in implementing this curriculum reform strategy. Texas has aligned its Recommended High School Program curriculum with the ADP-recommended benchmarks (Texas Education Agency, n.d.). Indiana’s Core 40 curriculum (Indiana Department of Education, 2006) is a product of Indiana’s Education Roundtable committee, whose members include leaders in K–16 education, business, the community, the government, and parent organizations. This core curriculum requires high school graduates to take four years of English courses, including literature, composition, and communication, and at least three years of mathematics courses, including Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry. In addition to articulating high standards, Indiana’s Education Roundtable (2003) emphasizes the equally important need to align standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessments throughout the state’s education system, from elementary through postsecondary education. Both Texas and Indiana require students who wish to opt out of these courses of study and be placed in a general education curriculum to obtain the approval of a guardian and/or a school counselor.

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