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New Study Sheds Light on Students in Acceleration Programs

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This week we are hearing from Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest (@RELMidwest). Today's post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner's perspective on this research.

This post is by Lyzz Davis (@lyzzdavis), PhD, Senior Researcher at REL Midwest.

In several states across the U.S., high school students have the opportunity to participate in acceleration programs, which is coursework that simultaneously carries high school and college credit. In Minnesota, acceleration programs comprise a major part of the state's strategy to increase high school students' college readiness and success. Minnesota offers several different types of acceleration coursework, with national programs such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, as well as state-sponsored postsecondary enrollment options (PSEO) programs. Thousands of high school students in the state participate in these programs every year. However, we know little about who participates in these programs and how participation affects college outcomes. To answer these questions, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education (MOHE) in 2014 tapped into the former College and Career Success Research Alliance, a research-practice partnership established under the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest.

As part of a network of ten Regional Educational Laboratories funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences, REL Midwest works in partnership with school districts, state departments of education, and others to improve education outcomes and support the use of evidence in education in the Midwest region. REL Midwest currently supports four research alliances. At the time of this study, REL Midwest's research alliances included the College and Career Success Research Alliance.

The alliance's work provided insight into four primary research questions. (It is important to note that these analyses were correlational, and readers should not make any causal claims based on the findings.)  

The questions we asked were:

  1. What students are participating in acceleration programs?

  2. What students are awarded college credit for their acceleration program participation?

  3. What are acceleration program participants' college outcomes, and how do they compare with students who did not participate?

  4. Does the number of college credits awarded make a difference for college success?

To answer these research questions, the College and Career Success Research Alliance took a descriptive look at the graduating 2011 cohort of Minnesota high school students. Specifically, we analyzed student-level data from the Minnesota State Longitudinal Education Data System (SLEDS), along with college-level data from Barron's Profiles of American Colleges and publicly available high school data from state and national sources. MOHE played a crucial role in the research process, collaborating with REL Midwest researchers to specify the data points needed for the analysis, co-interpret preliminary results, and draw insights from the findings.

In short, our study arrived at the following findings:

  1. What students are participating in acceleration programs? Acceleration programs were popular among Minnesota high school students. Almost half of our cohort participated in at least one acceleration program during high school. However, participants were disproportionately female, White, high achieving, and had higher socioeconomic status (SES).

  2. What students are awarded college credit for their acceleration program participation? Of the acceleration program participants who enrolled in a Minnesota college, only about half were awarded any credit by their college of enrollment. Similar to participation rates, those students actually awarded credit by their colleges were disproportionately female, White, high achieving, and had higher SES.

  3. What are acceleration program participants' college outcomes, and how do they compare with students who did not participate? Perhaps not surprisingly, students who participated in an acceleration program during high school had more positive college outcomes than their nonparticipating peers in terms of enrollment, readiness (taking nonremedial coursework only), and persistence to their second year. Although these rates varied across the different types of programs we examined, participants in all program types had better outcomes than nonparticipants did. Most of these relationships held after controlling for other student and high school characteristics.

  4. Does the number of college credits awarded make a difference for college success? There were few differences in the rates of college readiness and college persistence between participants who were awarded credit for their acceleration program participation and participants who were not awarded credit. This finding suggests that simply participating in acceleration courses during high school may be more important for college success than receiving college credit, which is consistent with our previous work.

MOHE recently invited me to present the results of the study to the SLEDS governing board and other education policymakers. I plan to raise the following items for consideration:

  • High schools and colleges may benefit from finding ways to expand program opportunities for underrepresented groups. According to previous research, underrepresented students who are provided the opportunity to participate in college-level coursework during high school showed improved outcomes and a reduction in the attainment gap. Expanding opportunities to these groups could help improve graduation and college-going rates among high schools, reduce the need for remediation, and improve persistence and completion rates among students.

  • To ensure students are awarded the credit if they pass the course, a closer look at the credit transfer policies at partnering colleges may benefit high schools and their students. Having to retake courses that students successfully completed in high school may increase students' financial burdens and time to completion, which could disproportionately affect lower-income students. Recent legislation (Minnesota Statute §124.D09 Subd. 12), which guarantees credit to students who successfully complete PSEO courses and enroll in a college in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, provides a first step toward reducing the total cost of attending college.

For more information about the research project and findings, please read the full report or research brief, and listen to our podcast about the project.

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