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high school doesn't prepare students for college
Sonja Brookins Santelises

Too many students are leaving high school with a diploma in hand but with no clear path forward. In fact, our new report shows that nearly half (47 percent) of American high school graduates complete neither a college- nor career-ready course of study.

When Tre, a Louisiana high school graduate we interviewed, shared his dream of becoming a dentist with his high school counselor, she advised him to take the bare minimum of academic credits and focus his attention on electives aligned with his interests.

So he did exactly that. It wasn’t until Tre arrived on a community college campus, eager to enter the dental program, that he realized just how far his high school course-taking — and his counselor’s advice — had left him from that aspiration.

Related: A student tells teachers: Show students you care and high schools will improve

Once seated across from his college counselor, he learned that he had not taken anywhere near the number or level of math and science courses he needed for entry into the dental program. And despite a high school diploma and grades that signaled to Tre that he had done everything right, he learned that he had not placed on the college level in any subject and would have to enroll in remedial coursework to learn what he should have been taught in high school. Tre remained in school for a semester and a half, slogging through non-credit-yielding coursework, until he gave up entirely.

When we examined a nationally representative sample of student transcripts for our new report, Meandering Toward Graduation: Transcript Outcomes of High School Graduates, we found that Tre’s experience is all too common.

Related: The end of “no excuses” education reform?

The transcript analysis we conducted reveals important information about how many — and which — students are gaining access to a cohesive course of study. Of course, seat time alone is not sufficient to signify postsecondary readiness. Students also need to master the material. To determine whether learning occurred within each course of study, we examined GPAs, using a 2.5 GPA as a benchmark.

Students of color and low-income students had considerably lower rates of mastery than their peers, with the starkest difference among graduates who had completed a college-ready curriculum: 82 percent of white graduates had a 2.5 GPA or higher in their academic courses, compared with just 51 percent of black graduates and 63 percent of Latino graduates.

There are other, significant differences in postsecondary readiness between groups of students. For example, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds were 14 percent less likely to complete the college-prep sequence than their more advantaged peers.

Related: The difference between being eligible for college and ready for college

On the whole, our analyses found that only 8 percent of high school graduates complete a full college- and career-prep course of study — defined here as the standard 15-course sequence required for entry at many public colleges, along with three or more credits in a broad career field such as health science or business. Fewer than one-third of graduates complete a college-ready course of study only, and just 13 percent finish a career-ready course sequence only.

“No one is absolved from responsibility for improving college-and-career outcomes among our country’s young people, especially students of color and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Too many high schools are prioritizing credit accrual for graduation over knowledge and skill development. This approach treats graduation as the end goal rather than the starting point for future success, whatever path students choose.

No one is absolved from responsibility for improving college-and-career outcomes among our country’s young people, especially students of color and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. State policymakers, district personnel, school leaders, educators, communities, and parents all play a role. High school leaders, though, are in a unique position to influence the structure, culture, and instruction within their schools to ensure students are exposed to rigorous, engaging, and relevant coursework that would prepare them for real, meaningful opportunity beyond the high school doors. And our report highlights potential levers for high school leaders to consider in maximizing postsecondary readiness:

  • Conduct a transcript analysis to determine which students are completing a cohesive academic and career-oriented curriculum, and identify the reasons why some students may not be.
  • Assess state or district graduation requirements to see how well they align with entry requirements at state colleges.
  • Equip educators with knowledge of entry requirements for a diverse set of postsecondary pathways, including career technical education, or CTE, programs.
  • Systematically develop and support teachers to provide rigorous and engaging instruction.

Prioritizing true readiness for life after graduation is no easy feat, particularly given how far we have to travel from where we are. But students like Tre deserve no less.

Sonja Brookins Santelises is vice president of K-12 policy and practice at The Education Trust, where her work includes developing and implementing strategies to ensure that Ed Trust’s K-12 efforts effectively focus national attention on inequities in public education and the actions necessary to close gaps in both opportunity and achievement. She was previously chief academic officer for Baltimore City Public Schools.

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