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High School Seniors Loading Up on Classes, Advanced Instruction

High school graduates are earning more credits than ever before, according to the National Assessment Governing Board’s 2009 High School Transcript Study.

According to a survey of transcripts of 37,700 high school graduates in the class of 2009, seniors earned three credits more, on average, than their 1990 counterparts. This amounted to 420 hours of additional instruction. Overall, the number of credits earned by high school graduates has increased, from 23.6 credits in 1990 to 27.2 in 2009.

Students are not only earning more credits, but they’re taking more advanced classes, earning higher GPAs in the process.

At least 13 percent of all students completed a “rigorous curriculum” in 2009, up from 5 percent in 1990. A rigorous curriculum is defined as a course load that includes additional credits in mathematics (pre-calculus or higher), biology, chemistry or physics and at least three foreign language credits.

By comparison, a standard curriculum only requires four credits of English and three courses each in social studies, math or science.

Additionally, a plurality of students — 46 percent — completed a “midlevel curriculum,” defined as having taken geometry or algebra I or II, two courses in biology, chemistry or physics, and at least one foreign language credit.

As the number of credits taken have increased, so have GPAs. GPAs for all racial and ethnic groups increased from 1990 to 2009, but Whites and Asian/Pacific Islander graduates have higher GPAs: White students have an average 3.09 GPA, while Asian/Pacific Islander students have a 3.26 GPA.

The percentage of Black students completing a below-standard curriculum decreased, from 60 percent to 21 percent. Today, a plurality of Black students — 51 percent — complete at least a midlevel curriculum. Similarly, at least 47 percent of Hispanic students complete a midlevel curriculum.

National Assessment Governing Board member Henry Kranendonk says the drive among all students to take more advanced classes has varied causes. For admission into some of the most selective programs, for example, some universities require students to have a strong foundation in math or science.

This, in turn, makes students much more competitive.

“We’ve heard a number of times about the incredible difference between the number of graduates in engineering in countries like India and China and our country,” he says. “And of course, universities cite the fact that our kids are not as good in math and science as they should be.”

Then there’s the self-selection factor. Many students who completed a rigorous curriculum in high school began taking advanced classes in middle school, suggesting a strong network of support and encouragement from their families and communities. Less fortunate students, however, are often left by the wayside.

“Kids who are just as capable may not be getting the same of kind of pressure and encouragement to excel,” says Kranendonk, noting that while students who have taken advanced classes tend to be well-prepared for post-secondary education, students who have completed a sub-standard curriculum tend to fall even further behind in college.

“Most of the colleges and universities will say that many of our kids are coming not prepared and are still taking remedial courses, meaning high school-type courses at the college level,” he says.

But the unique problems that these students face, he admits, were beyond the scope of the study.

Still, Kranendonk says he believes that improving the quality of instruction — particularly in math and science — can provide a significant boost to students’ chances of succeeding in college.

“It’s not going to solve everything just to offer algebra if teacher training and preparation is not matched with more work on the part of preparing those teachers,” he says. “It’s important that teachers are trained beyond their certification or regular training to teach courses like those.”

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