Press Release

A new report from The Education Trust says not so much

WASHINGTON – Forty-seven percent. This figure represents the share of American high school graduates who complete neither a college- nor career-ready course of study, according to a new report released today by The Education Trust.

The report, Meandering Toward Graduation: Transcript Outcomes of High School Graduates, shows that too many students leave high school with a diploma in hand but no clear path forward. This research comes as both educators and policymakers are increasingly aware of the need for a sharper focus on college and career readiness. But what does this phrase really mean, and how well are our schools doing in preparing all students for success after graduation? This report delves into these questions by examining the high school transcripts of a nationally representative sample of 2013 graduates.

Only 8 percent of high school graduates complete a full college- and career-prep curriculum — defined here as the standard 15-course sequence required for entry at many public colleges, along with three or more credits in a broad career field such as health science or business. The report also reveals that less than one-third of graduates complete a college-ready course of study only, and just 13 percent finish a career-ready course sequence only.

“Our findings suggest that high schools have prioritized credit accrual necessary for graduation over knowledge and skill development that would prepare students for life after graduation,” said Marni Bromberg, senior research associate at Ed Trust and co-author of the report. “There are also important differences in postsecondary readiness between groups of students. For example, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds were 14 percentage points less likely to complete the college-prep sequence than their more advantaged peers.”

What’s keeping students from college readiness? Over half (57%) of students who didn’t complete a college-ready curriculum missed more than one academic requirement, commonly Algebra II, foreign language, and chemistry or physics.

Course failures also contribute to the widespread lack of postsecondary readiness. For example, students who took neither a college- nor career-ready curriculum were more than twice as likely as those who completed a college- and career-ready curriculum to have failed at least one course.

But seat time alone is not sufficient to signify postsecondary readiness, according to Ed Trust researchers. Students also need to have mastered the material. Therefore, the report examines GPAs, using a 2.5 GPA benchmark, to understand whether learning has occurred.

Students of color and low-SES students had considerably lower rates of mastery than their peers, with the starkest difference showing up among graduates who had completed a college-ready curriculum: 82 percent of white graduates had a 2.5 GPA or higher in their academic courses, compared with just 51 percent of black graduates and 63 percent of Latino graduates.

“High school leaders need to be intentional about getting all students into a rigorous and cohesive course of study,” said Sonja Brookins Santelises, Ed Trust vice president of K-12 policy and practice. “But they can’t stop there. They must ensure that all students — especially students of color and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds — have the supports and quality instruction they need to be successful in all of their courses and prepared for life after high school.”

The report encourages high school leaders to reflect on the structure, culture, and instruction within their schools and how those elements expose students to rigorous, engaging, and relevant coursework that would prepare them for various college and career paths.

Meandering Toward Graduation highlights potential levers for high schools to consider in maximizing postsecondary readiness. Some of these include:

  • Conduct a transcript analysis to determine which students are completing a cohesive academic and career-oriented curriculum, and identify the reasons why some students may not be.
  • Assess state or district graduation requirements to see how well they align with entry requirements at state colleges.
  • Equip educators with knowledge of entry requirements for a diverse set of postsecondary pathways, including career technical education, or CTE, programs.
  • Systematically develop and support teachers to provide rigorous and engaging instruction.