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2007 Spotlight

High School Coursetaking

Requirements and Offerings

State Standards for Coursetaking

Many states have enacted minimum requirements for graduation that focus on the number and types of courses that students take in high school and the passing of standardized state tests of proficiency or competency in specific subjects. Starting in the early 1980s, many states adopted or added requirements patterned after the New Basics coursetaking standards recommended by the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) for high school graduation (Alexander and Pallas 1984; Chaney, Burgdorf, and Atash 1997). First articulated in A Nation at Risk (NCEE 1983), the New Basics recommendations called for all high school students to complete 4 years of English; 3 years each of mathematics, science, and social studies; and a half-year of computer science. For college-bound students, the New Basics also called for the completion of 2 years of a foreign language.

Currently, 37 states now require public high school students to take at least 20 credits (in Carnegie units2) of coursework; 8 states require fewer than 20 credits; and other states' course graduation requirements are determined locally (see table 1).3 Of those states with coursetaking requirements, 37 require 4 or more years of English, 31 require 3 or more years of social studies, 27 require 3 or more years of mathematics, and 23 require 3 or more years of science.

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2The basic unit of coursework measurement is the course credit or standardized "Carnegie unit." A Carnegie unit is a standard of measurement used for secondary education that is equivalent to the completion of a course that meets one period per day for one school year, where a period is typically at least 40 minutes.(back to text)

3Many local school districts and schools impose their own standards for graduation that exceed these state requirements. (back to text)

Figures and Tables

Table 1: State coursework requirements for high school graduation in Carnegie units: 2005