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HIGH SCHOOL CURRICULUM BEST PREDICTOR OF SUCCESS IN COLLEGE: Longitudinal Study Finds Reading Skills a Must for Accessing Challenging High School Material

"This new data empirically confirms what educators already know: Challenging high school coursework prepares students for the much tougher challenges that lie ahead," said U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings

A challenging high school curriculum is the best pre-college predictor of whether a student will obtain a bachelor’s degree, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Education. It adds that students must have the reading skills necessary to access material in challenging courses or “all will be beyond them.” The report, The Toolbox Revised: Paths to Degree Completion From High School Through College, uses data from an 8-and-a-half-year longitudinal study that follows the high school class of 1992 through December 2000 and asks what aspects of their formal schooling contributed to completing a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s.

“This new data empirically confirms what educators already know: Challenging high school coursework prepares students for the much tougher challenges that lie ahead,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. “It also helps colleges and universities by reducing the need for costly remedial education.”

Unfortunately, not all high school students have the opportunity to take challenging classes. For example, the report found that the highest level of mathematics reached in high school continues to be a key indicator of success in college, and that students who complete Algebra II are far more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree. It noted, however, that Latino students are far less likely to attend high schools offering trigonometry and other high levels of math than white or Asian students. In addition, students from the lowest 20 percent of socioeconomic status attend high schools that are much less likely to offer any math above Algebra II.

“If we are going to close gaps in preparation-and ultimate degree attainment-the provision of curriculum issue has to be addressed,” the report reads. “In recent years, colleges and community colleges have begun to provide these courses to high school students, and distance learning provides additional options if students have access to the technology.”

The report also cautioned that students who enter high school reading far below grade level are a special concern: “If students cannot read close to grade level, the biology textbook, the math problems, the history documents, the novel-all will be beyond them.”

In order to better prepare high school students for college coursework, the report calls for a greater dissemination of the expectations and assignments that students will likely see. It notes that examples such as those from the American Diploma Project’s 2004 report, Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts, should be shared with parents, high school teachers, and high school students.

The report also found that college students with fewer than 20 credits by the end of their freshman year are much less likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree. To help students accumulate credits, it suggests students be given greater access to dual enrollment programs that allow them to earn college credits while they are still in high school. It also stressed that high school students need to enter postsecondary education immediately following high school graduation. “The longer students wait, the less likely they will finish with a degree.”

While the number of minority students in postsecondary institutions is rising, Latinos and African Americans continue to receive bachelor’s degrees at a rate well below their white and Asian peers. According to the report, closing this achievement gap will require work both after the college matriculation line, and in communication and outreach between postsecondary institutions and high schools.

The report concludes with some recommendations for students, who it calls “partners in their own education fate,” who “shouldn’t wait around for someone else to do something for them, and who are rarely addressed in studies of attainment.” It also urges a “considerable change” in the language used to describe what happens to students from a “negative rhetoric that assumes passivity” to one that “respects students as active players, seeking and discovering paths to their education goals.”

Secretary Spellings’s statement and a link to the report are available at

States Post Gains on Advanced Placement Tests


All 50 states and the District of Columbia saw an increase in the percentage of high school students who earned a grade of 3 or higher (on a 5-point scale) on an Advanced Placement test since 2000, according to a new report from the College Board. The second annual report,Advanced Placement Report to the Nation, found that 14.1 percent of all students in the class of 2005 demonstrated mastery of an AP exam by earning an exam grade of 3 or higher-the grade predictive of college success-on an AP exam while in high school, up from 13.2 percent in 2004 and 10.2 percent in 2000. The report said that higher scores are evidence that the quality of learning in AP classrooms has remained steady even as more students are taking AP courses.

“Participation in AP has remarkable benefits for students; most notably, AP math and science courses are enabling American students to develop a level of math and science expertise that exceeds that of students from all other nations; the AP world language courses are developing our students’ capacity to engage with Asian and European cultures, while AP English and social science courses develop the skills necessary for students to write effectively, think critically, and engage with great minds from the world’s cultures,” said College Board President Gaston Caperton.

The report did find that more work needs to be done, as 35 states and the District of Columbia achieved lower results than the nationwide average of 14.1 percent. In addition, African-American and Native American students remain significantly underrepresented in AP classrooms. Nationwide, the report found that African-American students make up 13.4 percent of the student population, but only 6.4 percent of AP exam takers, and Native Americans make up 1.1 percent of the student population, but only 0.5 percent of the AP examinee population.

The complete report is available at,,50291,00.html.


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