2007 Spotlight

High School Coursetaking


With requirements for earning a high school diploma becoming more rigorous over the past 20 years, there have been increases in the rates at which students accrue course credits. For example, between 1982 and 2004, the average number of course credits accrued by high school graduates increased from 21.7 to 25.8 credits.

This growth in the number of credits earned has been accompanied by an increase in the advanced coursework completed by high school students. More students are now taking advanced courses in mathematics and science—in particular calculus, chemistry I, and physics I—and in English and foreign languages. Further evidence of the prevalence of advanced coursetaking is an increase in the percentage of students who take AP examinations: between 1997 and 2005, the total number of students taking AP examinations more than doubled. As the number of participants in AP courses has increased, average scores have remained relatively stable; however, there has been a decrease in the percentage of examinations resulting in a qualifying score of 3.0 or more, from 65 to 59 percent. At the same time that academic coursetaking has been rising, there has not been an improvement in 12th-grade NAEP scores (Shettle et al. 2007).

Gaps in advanced coursetaking by sex and race/ethnicity are evident in mathematics, science, English, and foreign language study. Most notably, since 1998, females have been more likely than males to complete some advanced science coursework, though no differences by sex were detected in the proportions of students who took the highest levels of science or mathematics coursework. In addition, in 2004, Asian graduates were more likely than graduates of any other race/ethnicity to complete advanced courses in mathematics, science, English, and foreign language study.