Courses Count: Preparing Students for Postsecondary Success

Issue/Topic: Curriculum; High School; High School--College Readiness
Author(s): ACT, Inc.
Season: Winter 2005

Roughly 75 percent of students who graduate from high school go on to some form of postsecondary education within two years of graduation from high school. However, approximately 28 percent of freshmen in postsecondary school enroll in one or more remedial courses in reading, writing, or math.

Why aren’t our students ready to succeed in postsecondary programs without remedial help when they leave high school?

NOTES FROM ECS: Important implications for policymakers who are considering changes to graduation requirements and other high school policies.


  • Some courses and course sequences better prepare students for postsecondary-level work than others, including: English 9 � 12; Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, and one or more upper level mathematics course; and Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Taking a foreign language enhances the benefits of the English sequence; and upper level mathematics and science courses have cross-disciplinary benefits.

  • Only about 35 percent of ACT-tested students took, or planned to take all of the course sequences that would best prepare them for postsecondary success; with the lowest participation in the math and science sequences. There was little or no change in course-taking patterns between 2000 and 2004.

  • Well over 90 percent of ACT test-takers in 2004 reported taking or planning to take English 9-12, and 89 percent planned to take one or more foreign languages. Slightly higher percentages of females than males planned to take or took foreign language courses.

  • In 2004, 44 percent of test takers completed or planned to complete Biology, Chemistry and Physics; more males than females took upper-level science courses. Enrollment in upper-level science courses was highest among Asian Americans and lower among African Americans and American Indians.

  • In 2004, 36 percent of test takers took or planned to take Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, and two or more mathematics courses beyond Algebra 2. Slightly higher percentages of males enrolled in upper-level mathematics than females. Enrollment in upper-level mathematics courses was highest among Asian Americans and lower among African Americans and American Indians.

  • Graduation and curriculum requirements that are delineated in terms of minimum numbers of course credits instead of specific courses allow students to satisfy requirements without taking the sequence of courses that would best prepare them for postsecondary success.

  • Policy Implications/Recommendations:

  • At the state and/or district level, graduation criteria should be defined by specific courses and course sequences and should require that students take, at a minimum: English 9-12; Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2 and at least one other advanced mathematics course beyond Algebra 2; Biology, Chemistry and Physics; and one to two years of a foreign language.

  • Educators at the K-12 and higher education levels must reach consensus regarding the content and skill expectations students should know and be able to do to succeed in entry-level postsecondary courses.

  • Educators should align content and skill expectations from middle school through college.

  • Educators should monitor student achievement of aligned curriculum content and skill expectations through systematic assessments to ensure continuous curriculum alignment as well as continued academic growth.

  • For full study: http://www.act.org/path/policy/pdf/CoursesCount.pdf

    Research Design:
    Statistical analyses and literature review.

    For the two statistical studies, 403,381 students who graduated from high school in 2003 and who took PLAN during their sophomore year and the ACT Assessment during the junior or senior year; and students who took the ACT Assessment in 2000 and 2004.

    Year data is from:


    Data Collection and Analysis:
    Each study analyzed data from the Course Grade Information Section of the ACT Assessment, which asks students to indicate whether they have taken, are currently taking, or plan to take a particular course.


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