Linking High School Curricula to Postsecondary Outcomes

High school students studying together

Increasing access to Advanced Placement and other rigorous courses has been a longstanding priority in educational policy. Many policymakers believe that these courses could potentially promote educational equity and greater readiness for college and career, particularly among underserved students. In a recent federally funded study, AIR researchers, including Burhan Ogut, examined how the rigor, sequencing, and timing of these courses affected student outcomes.

Q: This study considered the relationship between the rigor of high school curricula and postsecondary outcomes. What did you find?

Ogut: Previous research has already found a relationship between the rigor of a student’s high school curriculum and their postsecondary attainment and success. Our study dug into that relationship and found some related factors and correlations.

  1. The timing of the course-taking matters.
  2. Advanced coursework is important.
  3. Students who take a wide range of courses are likely to have better postsecondary outcomes.
  4. Both the quality and quantity of the coursework matters.

Q: How does your study differ from other research on this topic?

Ogut: There are several studies on this topic already, but we had a couple goals that made our project distinctive.

First, we wanted to use the most current and nationally representative data collected after recent initiatives like Algebra for All, Race to the Top, and the Common Core State Standards. This would allow our findings to better reflect the real state of education in this country today. There are also new analytical techniques that we wanted to apply to that data, on top of the classical approaches that have been used in the past.

We…came up with an algorithm that takes students’ curriculum data and then ranks them to create indices for the rigor. This makes the study more replicable, so other researchers can build on it.

Second, we wanted to standardize how rigor is defined. In past studies, researchers assessed the rigor of coursework in different ways, such as the highest course taken (for example, Algebra II) or indices composed of core academic coursework (for example, the high school curriculum index). In the case of indices, the “rigor” of an individual students’ curriculum is determined, based on many subjective decisions made on the number of credits received in subject areas, by the researchers themselves. We wanted to standardize this process and came up with an algorithm that takes students’ curriculum data and then ranks them to create indices for the rigor. This makes the study more replicable, so other researchers can build on it.

Q: How should teachers, administrators, and caregivers apply these findings to improve student outcomes?

Ogut: One of the most important findings is the importance of timing in a student’s curriculum. For example, students who take precalculus in high school are much likelier to end up at a four-year college than those who don’t. But in order to take precalculus before they graduate, students need to first take the necessary pre-requisites: Algebra I, geometry, and Algebra II. That’s only possible if the student takes algebra “on-time”—in ninth grade or earlier. Helping students stay on track with their coursework—even years and years before they’re thinking about college applications—can make a big difference in a student’s post-secondary outcomes. In addition, we found that it is not just the number of credits a student takes in high school, but also that advanced level course-taking is also associated with better enrollment outcomes.

With that in mind, we’ve developed a dashboard that individuals can use to assess the rigor of a student’s curriculum with respect to college enrollment. They can input the student’s coursework data at grades 9 through 12 and see what their chances are for going to college. The earlier the tool is used, the more useful it is. Parents or teachers can play around in the tool, try out different course schedules, and see how their student’s chances of college increase or decrease, which will allow them to make data-driven decisions.

Q: Are there any plans to follow this cohort to continue to track their post-secondary progress to and through college?

Ogut: Yes. We used student data from the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009, a nationally representative study of 24,000 students who started ninth grade in the fall of 2009. That study is still ongoing. IES collects data in waves around milestones for that cohort: for example, when they graduated high school; a few years into college; and so forth. There will be an update in 2025, when they’ve been in the labor market for a few years, so we can expand this study to consider the relationship between their high school coursework and their eventual job outcomes.