High School Rigor: Not Just About Taking Advanced Courses

We have some good news and some bad news.

The good news: The recently released U.S. Department of Education NAEP high school transcript study noted that the number of advanced courses (Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate, etc.) students take in high school has tripled over the past two decades.

The bad news: The New York Times reported that despite the increase in advanced course-taking, students have not been scoring any higher on end-of-course exams than in the past.  Researchers suggest this may be due to several possibilities: “watered down” course offerings; high school seniors not trying as hard on exams at the end of their senior year because there are no performance consequences; the fact that the content offered may not match the course title; parents’ desire for their children to take rigorous-sounding coursework; and schools who want to appear to offer tougher classes.

So what can educators do for students, who expect advanced coursework to prepare them for college and career success?  First, educators need to adopt standards, such as the common core state standards, that promote college- and career-readiness, as well as assessments that accurately assess those skills at a high level.  Data from AP and other “advanced” exams should be assessed and used by educators to create additional learning opportunities for students that go beyond traditional curriculum offerings. Educators could consider creating career academies and early college high schools to offer alternative paths for students to prepare for college and careers.  Student data should be used early on to examine how well students – particularly traditionally underserved students – are learning within the context of their current schoolwork, and how well they are being prepared to take on the rigor of college-level work. Schools should also assess whether their students need additional supports – such as strategies specific to students with disabilities and English Language Learners (ELLs).

Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.

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