Gaps in Postsecondary Readiness and Expectations

Our Take

  • Students graduating from high school should have all opportunities readily available to them, including entering a good career path, the military, or postsecondary education. In too many states, though, a high school diploma does not mean that a graduate is ready to successfully enter college, the military, or the workforce. Every high school student should be in a course pathway that leads to a high school diploma that aligns with and affords them the opportunity to pursue postsecondary education, a career path, or the military.
  • Achieve’s recent research has shown that the courses students are expected to take to earn a high school diploma have large impacts, particularly for historically disadvantaged student groups, States should do more to ensure that all students pursue pathways that give them the knowledge and skills they need to succeed, and to give them options to pursue postsecondary pathways or credentials of value that prepares them for a career. State data about college- and career-ready courses of study and college- and career-ready assessment scores must be transparently reported and disaggregated across subgroups.
  • Data show that in many states, students have to “opt in” to taking a set of courses that meets the requirements for entering the public four-year postsecondary institutions that serve the most graduates from their high schools. This means that the expectations for many students in states are set lower than what’s needed for admission into four-year schools.
  • Available data also show significant gaps in readiness for college and careers among high school graduates, and those gaps are particularly pronounced among disadvantaged student groups. Thus, many state graduation options leave students unprepared for college or a career.

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While other measures of student achievement have remained stagnant or declined, high school graduation rates continue to rise. So, what does graduating from high school really mean for students?

In fact, each year, states are graduating thousands of students who fail to demonstrate proficiency in key skills assessed by states’ mathematics and English language arts summative assessments. Relatedly, too many students earn a high school diploma without having taken the courses needed for admissions into colleges and universities in their states.

How do we know that some students are graduating from high school unprepared?

There are significant, and often financial, consequences to allowing students to earn a diploma and leave high school without the preparation they need. Many high school graduates are unable to perform tasks needed in entry-level jobs and to enter credit-bearing college courses.

  • Employers are spending time and money to “upskill” and train entry-level employees in the math, science, and literacy content that they should have learned in high school.
  • First-year college students are spending time and money on remedial math and English courses that do not count toward graduation.
  • Students who take remedial courses during their first year after high school are much less likely to complete their college education.

Gaps in readiness for college and careers are wider among students of color, low-income students, and English learners. Many states do not administer assessments that provide a signal of a student's readiness fo college- and career-level work. This lack of important data leaves students, their families, schools, and other key decisionmakers in the dark about gaps in readiness.

In many states, readiness gaps occur alongside gaps in the expectations between what students must do to earn a high school diploma and what they must do gain postsecondary admission. These expectations gaps can leave students, parents, and schools confused about what students need to be prepared and succeed after high school. As a result, too many students receive a high school diploma that leaves them unprepared to enter postsecondary education. Students are left scrambling to make up coursework that could be taken during their high school experience. 

In more than half of states, completing the graduation option that students automatically start in – the default option – will mean students do not complete the right mathematics courses for entry into at least one of the two universities analyzed. This means the burden is on individual students and families to choose a different pathway – or supplement with additional math coursework – in order to complete the courses needed to meet the mathematics requirements of the postsecondary institutions in the state.

In just 24 states, completing the graduation option that students automatically start in will mean students do not complete the right science courses for entry into at least one of the two universities we analyzed. Likewise, this means the burden is on individual students and families to choose a different pathway or supplement with additional coursework to meet the requirements for admission into postsecondary institutions. In many states, the higher education institution specifically references “lab sciences” students must complete in high school. However, many states’ K-12 course requirements do not reflect this language.

In nearly all cases of a difference in expectations in science and mathematics, these higher education institutions require more advanced coursework than K-12 and higher education is more specific about the coursework students must complete. In a number of states, the higher education institutions also required more total units of mathematics or science.

These gaps in expectations, on the whole, represent a significant barrier to student success and they interfere with the educational mission of the secondary and postsecondary education systems alike. To begin to address this issue, education stakeholders need to better understand where these gaps exist and which students are most likely to be affected.

States need to transparently report data across student subgroups about how well schools are preparing high school graduates for college and careers. This data can help policymakers, advocates, educators, and other stakeholders make informed decisions about how to help all students graduate ready for the future.  

Data Explorer