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Research Finds High School Rigor Tied to Success in College

Bolstering the push to improve college- and career-readiness in high school, researchers say they have new evidence that more rigorous courses do indeed help the odds for student success — especially for disadvantaged youth and those attending disadvantaged schools.

An article in the American Educational Research Journal this month looks at the courses high school students took and how that affected high school graduation, as well as entry to and advancement in postsecondary education. Using panel data from a census of public school students in Florida, authors Mark Long, Dylan Conger and Patrice Iatarola demonstrate a strong case for the benefits of requiring students to take challenging courses.

The researchers found that students who took Level-3 math courses by 10th grade had higher test scores, were more likely to graduate from high school, and were more apt to attend a four-year college. The same advantage was evident for those who took rigorous classes in English, science, social studies or a foreign language. Across the five subjects, taking a rigorous course raised the likelihood of attending a four-year college by 7 to 9 percentage points and two-year college by 2 to 4 points. It also translated into raising student's college GPA and the number of cumulative credits they earned.

(The authors used propensity score matching, based on 8th grade test scores, student characteristics and school effects, within groups of students.)

The paper concludes that taking a rigorous class, across subjects, is advantageous at any point in high school, but is even stronger if taken in 9th or 10th grade. While most relationships were the same across demographic groups, Hispanic, African-American and poor students experienced a slightly higher increase in high school graduation rates when they took a rigorous course by 10th grade.

While these courses may produce better educational outcomes, the authors note that an unintended consequence could be stressed out and overworked students. The paper finds diminishing returns for students already taking hard classes; the best gains are among students from disadvantaged and high-poverty schools. They suggest a possible approach may be to shift students from taking no rigorous courses into taking some, while avoiding going overboard for those with already demanding course loads.

An abstract of the article, "The Effects of High School Course-Taking on Secondary and Postsecondary Success" can be found here.

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