On Course for Success: A Close Look at Selected High School Courses That Prepare All Students for College

Issue/Topic: Curriculum; High School; High School--College Readiness
Author(s): Haycock, Kati
Organization(s): ; Education Trust
Publication: On Course for Success: A Close Look at Selected High School Courses That Prepare All Students for College
Season: Winter 2004

Fewer than 56% of the spring 2004 high school graduates who took the ACT Assessment® took a core college-preparatory curriculum in high school. Even among those who report taking a core high school curriculum—four or more years of English and three or more years each of math, social sciences, and natural sciences—a significant number are still not prepared to succeed in credit-bearing first-year college courses. Not only is taking the right number of courses important, but taking the right kind.

To look at the components of high school courses that prepare students for successful entry into postsecondary education, searching for schools where there are substantial populations of minority and low-income students and whose students take the ACT Assessment and perform well on the test.

NOTES FROM ECS: Implications for teachers, administrators, local and state policymakers


High-level college-oriented content

  • Successful students were enrolled in college-preparatory courses in their high schools and learning the skills they need to be ready for college-level work. The content of these courses put students on a trajectory toward college from Grade 9 through Grade 12.

  • Flexible pedagogical styles

  • The teachers commanded flexible pedagogical styles, allowing informal rapport with their students. To assist in the comprehension of difficult concepts, the teachers made connections to former learning, to current events, to popular culture, and across the curriculum.

    Model course syllabi

  • Presents models for grades 10 and 11 English, geometry, Algebra II, precalculus, and the college-preparatory counterparts in these subjects as well as biology, chemistry and physics.

    Tutorial support

  • In the 10 schools and 69 courses studied, both the schools and the teachers of the courses supported students with tutorial help, both formally and informally.

    Well-qualified teachers

  • Teachers of successful high school courses were qualified to teach their academic discipline in high school, and many held advanced degrees.

  • Policy Implications/Recommendations:


  • All students should be provided with a rigorous college-oriented curriculum. District administrators and staff should reevaluate the content of college-oriented curricula as currently taught -- to ensure that they are focused on the rigorous skills needed for college and work readiness. Just having the right course name doesn�t guarantee that the course content will develop the skills students need to be ready for college. The syllabi and course descriptions included in this report represent a starting point for evaluation of present college-preparatory courses. They should also be used to inform the adoption of textbooks and other curricular materials. In this way, the district can help ensure that students have access to the level of curriculum content that produces results.

  • School-level administrators, counselors and faculty should make sure that all students are taught a rigorous college-oriented curriculum. A rigorous college-oriented curriculum puts students on a trajectory aimed toward college, from Grade 9 through Grade 12. This curriculum is especially important for minority and low-income students, who have not always been provided access to high-level content.

  • School board members and community leaders should support the district�s commitment to providing all high school students a high-level college-preparatory curriculum. They should support district and school efforts to evaluate curriculum using the course descriptions in this report. They should support the implementation of a high-level curriculum for all students.

  • Parents should advocate to have their child enrolled in the higher-level courses. They should find out which courses offer the best preparation for college by looking for the qualities described in this report.

  • Qualified teachers

  • All students should have the benefit of teachers qualified to teach these rigorous college-oriented courses. District adminstrators and staff should make sure all schools have teachers qualified to teach these courses. Teachers need not only initial degrees in the academic discipline and educational qualifications, but opportunities to maintain and enhance their mastery of the discipline and of the appropriate pedagogy. They need the pedagogical flexibility to draw from a wide range of knowledge—including current events and popular culture—in order to make difficult concepts accessible to all students. School board members and community leaders should respond if schools need help staffing schools with enough qualified teachers, high-level college-preparatory materials, and extra academic services for students when they need it.

  • Extra Assistance

  • All students should be provided with help outside the classroom when needed. High schools should accept the responsibility of organizing tutorial help before, after, and during school hours and, if necessary, on Saturdays, in the evenings, and in summer programs. Tutors can be teachers, fellow students, or members of the community. Counselors have a special responsibility to ensure that students get the help they need.

  • More Research

  • Much research remains to be done. Future research might examine questions such as: "Which teaching practices and curricula are the most effective at closing gaps among students who enter high school at different levels of academic achievement?" "How do schools ensure that students most in need of help receive it?" "At what point in their schooling are students moved toward the college trajectory?"

  • http://www.act.org/path/policy/pdf/success_report.pdf

    Research Design:
    Study of courses taken by a sample of students; included ten schools that met certain criteria in nine states; two predominantly minority; one rural; four restricted admission to students who passed entrance tests; two were in Illinois where all juniors in public high schools take the Prairie State Achievement Exam (includes the ACT assessment); all schools offered Advanced Placement program. Surveyed teachers.

    National. Ten schools in nine states; two predominantly minority; one rural; four restricted admission to students who passed specific entrance tests; two were part of a statewide Illinois program in which all juniors take the Prairie State Achievement Test, which includes the ACT assessment; all offered students Advanced Placement program.

    Year data is from:


    Data Collection and Analysis:
    National sample


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