U.S. High School Students Shortchanged on Education, Study Finds

Published March 1, 2005

A recently released study documents what many in higher education and the business world have been saying for years: U.S. high school curriculum requirements are too low, leaving many graduates unprepared for either college or work.

The study, released in December 2004, found no state requires students to take what the authors call a “college- and work-preparatory curriculum” in order to graduate.

The authors point to “a wide range of economic, education and business experts” who say good-paying jobs will require “more math and more English than ever before” if the United States is going to remain economically competitive. If low curriculum standards persist, the authors warn, “many of the highly skilled jobs may go to workers in other countries, such as China and India.”

The study was conducted by Achieve, Inc., a nonprofit organization established after the 1996 National Education Summit. Achieve is a bipartisan group created by the nation’s governors and corporate leaders to help states raise academic standards, improve assessments, and strengthen accountability to prepare all young people for post-secondary education, work, and citizenship.

Progress in Few States

The researchers studied graduation requirements for students in all 50 states. While finding no state requires students to take a college- and work-preparatory curriculum in order to graduate, they noted a few states are making progress.

Three states–Arkansas, Indiana, and Texas–are singled out for recognition. While not requiring students to take a more challenging curriculum, the three have adopted policies that make a curriculum that aligns with “college- and work-ready expectations” the “default” curriculum, meaning students will automatically be enrolled in classes that meet the higher standards unless they specifically request to opt out.

1st Year

The report recommends all high school students take four years of English, including literature, writing, and communication skills, and four years of math, including Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II as well as statistics.

In a statement accompanying the release of the report, Achieve President Michael Cohen said, “Expectations for students go hand-in-hand with results. Rigorous preparation is essential for students to be well prepared for success after high school.”

High Cost of Low Standards

The Achieve study relied on benchmarks created by the American Diploma Project to determine the “knowledge and skills required for students to succeed … in college and in careers that provide a living wage.” Because many students graduate from high school with inadequate educations, employers and colleges must spend millions of dollars on remedial instruction.

The benchmarks were developed by consulting with employers and college faculty, who were asked what students need to know and be able to do in order to succeed after graduation, in either college or the workplace.

Success in either environment mostly requires the same abilities, according to employers and college faculty. Among the skills and abilities cited were correct grammar and spelling, strong writing ability, the ability to reason, skill at algebra and geometry, and the ability to interpret, analyze, and describe data quickly and accurately.

In a June 2004 report, Achieve had found a sizeable gap between the skills employers and college professors say students need, and the skills students needed in order to pass high school exit exams in the six states studied. The June study found that the majority of questions on high school exit exams required skills most students are taught in middle school or the early years of high school.

Specific Recommendations for States

The new study concludes with six recommendations for states:

  • Require all students to take a common college- and work-preparatory curriculum in math and English to earn a diploma, including four years of math that include Algebra I and Algebra II, Geometry, and some statistics, and four years of English including literature, writing, reasoning, logic, and communications skills.
  • Align academic standards in high school with the knowledge and skills required for college and workplace success. The standards should be validated with employers and college faculty.
  • Pay attention to content, not just course titles. Content standards must clearly describe the level, rigor, and content of courses.
  • Provide guidance but allow flexibility. States should provide clear guidance about what is most important for students to learn, possibly by establishing a model school curriculum.
  • Encourage students to go beyond the core. Students should be encouraged to earn post-secondary credit while in high school, through Advanced Placement courses or other programs.
  • Monitor results. States and schools must be able to determine whether students are learning. An innovative program in Oregon, the report noted, sends every high school principal and counselor a report from the Oregon University System on their school’s graduates and their performance as first-year students in college.

“Some worry that raising graduation requirements will hurt students,” said Mathew Gandal, executive vice president of Achieve, in a statement accompanying the report. “But nothing is more harmful than sending young people out into the real world unprepared. As states gradually raise expectations … they give their young people a chance for a much brighter future.”

Call for Higher Standards

The findings and recommendations of the report mirror those of prominent national leaders in recent years.

An April 3, 2004 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s (D) call for statewide exams as a requirement for high school graduation. “We have got to make our high school diplomas worth something,” Rendell said to an audience of college students. “We’re not educating our kids well,” he noted, saying schools need to provide students with the “tools they need to succeed.”

Rendell, who previously served as the general chair of the Democratic National Committee and mayor of Philadelphia, is one of six governors who serve on the Board of Directors of Achieve.

Craig Barrett, CEO of the high-tech company Intel and another member of Achieve’s Board of Directors, also called for higher standards for graduates, particularly concerning math and science skills. In a September 10, 2001 guest editorial in the Baltimore Sun, he wrote the U.S. economy “is driven by knowledge, and math and science skills play an increasingly important role.”

Barrett called for students to be tested in grades three through eight to uncover what he termed “learning gaps” and said, “We need to expose every student to challenging math and science by ensuring that every school offers a rigorous curriculum with textbooks and classroom materials aligned to high standards.”

Sean Parnell ([email protected]) is vice president of The Heartland Institute.

For more information …

on state high school education standards, see the published Achieve, Inc. report at http://www.achieve.org/dstore.nsf/Lookup/coursetaking/$file/coursetaking.pdf.