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Students Benefit From Strong High School Rigor, Center for Public Education Report Finds

Alexandria, Va. – The National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education released today a new report, Is high school tough enough? finding that U.S. students benefit from a rigorous high school curriculum, but access and equality to advanced programs continue to plague many schools.

The report reviews the research behind effective curricular strategies for promoting high school rigor in the U.S. and focuses on strategies commonly used by school districts to strengthen the high school curriculum: Advanced Placement (AP) courses, high-level math courses, dual enrollment programs, and early college high schools.

“In today’s education landscape, many are beginning to re-think the high school experience,” said Patte Barth, Director of the Center.  “From Advanced Placement courses to dual enrollment, early college high schools, and even high-level math; the aim is to expose students to concepts, curricula, and ideas that will help them succeed in college or lead to a productive career. This emphasis is reflected in many education policy trends, including an increasing ‘PreK-16’ perspective as well as the Common Core State Standards, which most U.S. states have adopted in order to help produce college-ready and career-ready high school graduates.”

Major findings of the report and suggestions for school board leadership include:

Access. More than 3,000 U.S. high schools do not even offer classes in Algebra II, a basic component of a rigorous curriculum. Larger schools and those with a lower portion of minority schools often have more access to a rigorous curriculum and the strategies discussed in the paper. Addressing these issues first, particularly access to Algebra II, is imperative for our nation’s schools.

Equity. Advanced courses can make a difference with many minority and low-income students. For example, in Texas, Hispanic students passing an AP exam were nearly seven times more likely to graduate college than their non-participating counterparts. Such findings buttress the argument that exposure to higher-level courses can translate into long-term gains for underrepresented students. School boards should look at issues of equity when deciding where and how to implement these strategies.

Funding. For several of the strategies examined here, funding from federal or state governments is available. The U.S. Department of Education has the AP Incentive program, with funding for low-income districts that want to expand their courses. All states have established policies on dual enrollment that govern funding and access (Academic Pathways to Access and Student Success website). As recently as 2005, ten states allowed both K-12 and public post-secondary institutions to receive per-student funding for dual enrollment courses, a powerful incentive for participation (Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education, 2005). Educators can benefit from knowing about these state and federal funding streams.

Advocacy. More and more groups are discussing college and career readiness standards, and the Common Core standards are starting to be implemented.  For example, 46 states are participating in at least one of two state-led consortia (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium) that are developing K-12 English and math assessments aligned to the common core standards which reflect readiness for college and career. Whether by monitoring this trend or by providing direct input, school board members can play a role as these discussions move toward implementation.

K-12/College Links.  Districts should review data on how their graduates perform in the first year of college. Higher education persistence rates, grade point averages, and college completion rates are other data sets of interest. According to the Data Quality Campaign, data systems in 49 states are now able to connect high school and post-secondary data, and 39 states are set up to provide feedback reports to high schools, although many high schools still don’t receive this information. At a relatively low cost, the National Student Clearinghouse can provide aggregate data on the post-secondary performance of a school’s graduates. All high schools could benefit from this report on graduates’ performance.