The role of the high school has changed dramatically over the past century. It has evolved from an institution designed to serve only a few, privileged students to one that serves as a gateway — for all students — to both postsecondary education and the workplace. But as late as the 1940s, access to a high school education remained limited in many rural areas of the nation, and it wasn't until the civil-rights movement of the 1960s that the first generation of African Americans had universal access to a public high school education.
Over the years, expectations for high schools and the students they serve have steadily increased. In the 1970s, states began to mandate minimum-competency tests to ensure high school graduates could at least read, write and compute at an 8th-grade level. More recently, the adoption of higher academic standards and increased calls for accountability have led to the implementation of high school exit exams that are used in many states to determine whether a student may graduate.
Earning a high school diploma has never been more important for success later in life. Nearly 60% of today's jobs require some training or education beyond high school — compared to just 20% in the 1940s. High school graduates earn higher pay, and are less likely to become dependent on public assistance, have health problems or engage in criminal activity.
Unfortunately, many students are failing the graduation competency tests. As a result, states are lowering minimum scores required to pass, offering up to five test retakes and delaying implementation of further testing. At the same time, states are finding that current high school curriculum standards are, in some cases, not challenging enough. While the performance of America's elementary school students is strong compared with international averages, our high school students rate near the bottom internationally.
The quality and performance of urban, predominantly minority high schools are of particular concern. According to a 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress report, the average minority high school graduate performs at the same level as an 8th-grade white student on reading and mathematics. Factors outside of school such as income and family issues are compounded by urban school characteristics of larger class sizes, inexperienced teachers, high turnover rates in administration, inadequate supplies, lack of challenging classes and overall low expectations set for students.
Access to high-level courses and a challenging curriculum is especially important for students in their senior year. A student who has been admitted to college early, or has passed the graduation exam, may see little use in enrolling in challenging classes in his or her senior year. As a result, many students are ill-prepared for college, with nearly one-third being required to enroll in freshman remediation courses in one or more subjects.
Another component of the problem is the lack of interconnections among the various levels of the education system — elementary, middle, high school and postsecondary — in terms of both curricula and administration. Teachers within the system tend to be isolated from one another, making collaboration and common goals difficult. With the average guidance counselor attending to the career and academic choices of 500 students, it can be difficult for students to find the resources they need to make wise decisions. Moreover, there are often different sets of requirements that govern high school curriculum, resulting in a low generalized outcome for all students. There is one set of requirements for students who plan to enter the workforce after graduation, another for students who plan to attend college and yet another, more advanced set of requirements for students who want to make sure to be placed in certain college courses.
Over the past several years, a number of promising approaches to rethinking and redesigning high schools have emerged. For example, the P-16 movement seeks to create a more integrated, seamless continuum of education, preschool through postsecondary. Some states are establishing "middle college" high schools — high schools located on a college campus — to allow students to build a stronger link between their high school studies and their postsecondary aspirations. School districts in Chicago and Rochester, New York, have adopted flexible, three- to five-year plans for completing high school. Career magnet schools have been designed to combine career preparation with demanding academic instruction. Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Oakland, New York and Chicago have broken big schools into smaller "schools within a school" to address student needs more efficiently. The High Schools That Work program created by the Southern Regional Education Board challenges participating schools to meet specific, higher standards to prepare students for a rigorous college curriculum or a successful career.
It is too early to determine how such strategies are affecting student achievement. What we do know is that raising expectations often raises achievement. Offering Advanced Placement courses, reducing class size and connecting students to college and career resources can raise student accomplishment by providing the tools needed for advancement. The most successful high schools share challenging expectations and use a common vision of high achievement to unify their teaching methods and curriculum.