Why High School Rigor Matters

By Patte Barth

A high school diploma used to be the ticket to a good job paying decent wages. No longer. The best bet for the future of today’s youth is postsecondary education, and most students know it. Between 1960 and 1980, the college enrollment rate of new high school graduates held steady at about one half. Today that number is in the neighborhood of 70 percent, and climbing. Our young people are going to college, but according to ACT, only one in four is ready to succeed in all of their freshman-level courses upon arrival. The rates for low-income students and students of color lag even farther behind.

Public school leaders need to make sure the diploma they hand out on commencement day prepares their new graduates to succeed in today’s world. This means being ready for college as well as for good 21st century jobs. It’s a big challenge, one that many schools are struggling to meet.

Over the past few years, our team at NSBA’s Center for Public Education (CPE) has sought to identify the ingredients of a public education that support success after graduation. Several research reviews, original studies, and analyses later, we consistently find that the strength of the high school curriculum predicts a student’s chances of thriving on many measures, including earning higher wages, holding a good job with benefits, and completing a two- or four-year college degree.

Math seems to have superpowers when predicting later success, to the point that we’re tempted to say all roads lead to Algebra II and trigonometry. For example, Jim Hull, CPE’s senior policy analyst, found that taking high-level math courses raises students’ chances at being accepted into competitive colleges more than improving either GPA or ACT/SAT scores.

Other researchers have shown that high school students who complete math beyond Algebra II double their likelihood of earning a bachelor’s degree. Advanced math also boosts their earning power apart from whatever credentials they may earn. But other subjects matter, too. Our review of research on the effect of rigorous high school programs, such as Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB), shows that high-level curriculum overall leads to better after-high school outcomes even when students fail the test.

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