As more high-schoolers complete rigorous curricula, achievement gaps remain

The National Assessment of Educational Progress offered insight into our country’s school system today with the release of its 2009 High School Transcript Study. The report, which scrutinized the transcripts of 37,700 graduates from the Class of 2009 at 610 public and private schools across the nation, contains few surprises. But it does stand as a reminder of the country’s progress — as well as how far it has to go before every student is “college or career-ready.”

Sixteen percent of high-school students completed a “standard” curriculum, with four credits of English and three credits each in social studies, math and science. Forty-six percent of graduates navigated a “mid-level” curriculum that included the standard requirements but also mandated that two of the math courses be geometry and Algebra I or II and two of the science courses be biology, chemistry or physics. A mid-level curriculum also has a foreign language requirement.

Compared to years past, more students pursued a “rigorous” curriculum: four credits in English, four credits in math (through or beyond pre-calculus), three credits in social studies, three foreign-language credits, and courses in biology, chemistry and physics. In 1990, just five percent of U.S. high-school graduates completed such a sequence. By 2009, the number had risen to 13 percent.

Over the same time period, the percentage of black students completing a rigorous curriculum tripled from two to six percent. For Hispanics, the percentage quadrupled, from two to eight percent.

For Asians/Pacific Islanders, the percentage of students pursuing a rigorous curriculum surged from 13 to 29 percent.

Though the overall picture seems brighter now than it did two decades ago, racial gaps still exist — both in the percentages of students taking more rigorous curricula and in performance on NAEP exams. For instance, white students taking rigorous curricula scored, on average, 191 on the 12th-grade NAEP test in mathematics, compared to an average of 198 among Asians/Pacific Islanders. Black students averaged 167, while the average for Hispanic students was 172.

Still, black and Hispanic students who enrolled in rigorous classes performed better on NAEP than their white peers who followed a “mid-level” curriculum.

Check out the full report here.