During our research for “Falling Out of the Lead,” the third report in our Shattering Expectations series, we interviewed high-achieving, low-income students to better understand how their high schools prepared them for college. This blog post is the first in a four-part series focused on what we learned from students, the struggles they encountered, and the successes they realized.

According to national data, black and Latino students who are high-achieving when they enter high school are about as likely as high-achieving, white students to take rigorous courses, like Advanced Placement. But the crux of our new analysis is that, for many reasons, these students pass a smaller share of AP tests they take, leave high school with lower GPAs, and enroll in less selective postsecondary options, as compared with their white peers. So then, what happens in high school that might contribute to these disparities?

Infographic_FallingOutoftheLead_Revised040114We interviewed high-achieving, low-income students from Texas to Virginia to learn more about their own experiences in high school, and one topic that came up repeatedly was the quality of their courses. Students reported that their high school classes ranged from rigorous and rewarding to easy and unfulfilling — or they fell somewhere in between. Whatever the case, students noticed when course titles didn’t reflect the rigor or content being delivered; algebra II in one classroom, for example, could look very different from algebra II in another school — or even in the class down the hall.

Consider Andres, a student who attended a diverse, public high school in Alabama, where courses varied from low-level to quite rigorous. Describing some of his more demanding coursework, Andres says, “(The teachers) more guided conversation instead of controlling it. Classes were discussion-based, not lectures. The teachers were supportive.” Other students had similar notions of useful coursework — classes in which teachers gave them challenging tasks and encouraged them to make connections between the course material and other aspects of their lives, their communities, and society.

Andres contrasts these good experiences with his Principles of Engineering class, where grades largely depended on small, mindless tasks. “Crossword puzzles made up 60 percent of our grade, and tests made up just 10 percent,” he said. But students want to be challenged more than that. “Let’s say there’s a reading about a certain historical event,” Andres says. “It would be better to ask students about what the event meant in a larger context, or what reaction the event had, instead of asking about one specific person.”

He adds, “And it’s definitely not easier. It would be easier to just ask students to memorize.”

Andres is now a freshman at Union College in New York, where he says coursework “involves more thinking and less busy work.”

In the coming weeks, we’ll share more student stories illustrating the diversity of experiences in high school. You’ll hear from students who felt their high schools set them on a path toward success, as well as those who felt set back. These narratives highlight strategies for serving high-achievers in particular, but also for providing a quality experience to each and every student who walks through a school’s front doors.