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2007 Spotlight

High School Coursetaking

Coursetaking Patterns

National data on public and private high school student coursetaking and educational attainment come from two sets of surveys sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES): the high school longitudinal transcript studies—including the High School and Beyond Longitudinal Study of 1980 Sophomores, “First Follow-up” (HS&B-So:80/82); the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88/92), “Second Follow-up, High School Transcript Survey, 1992”; and the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002/04), “High School Transcript Study”—and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) High School Transcript Studies (HSTS), selected years, 1987–2005.

The high school longitudinal transcript studies provide information on graduates of public and private high schools in 1982, 1992, and 2004. The NAEP High School Transcript Studies (HSTS) cover the experiences of public and private high school graduates in 1987, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2000, and 2005. The HSTS gathers information from the transcripts of students in public and private schools nationwide. Both survey systems are part of larger studies that track students’ performance in high school.

Credits on a student’s transcript quantify the amount of coursework that a student has completed. Credits can be organized by subject and placed in taxonomies, each of which includes courses either of similar academic challenge and difficulty or at the same stage in the progression of learning in a subject.8 However, because credits cannot measure the breadth or depth of the course content, they cannot be used to measure how the curriculum may have changed over time or how much high school courses with similar transcript titles vary across classes and schools. Even courses with the same titles may vary considerably in terms of their content and what they demand of students.

Transcript data recording the number of credits that students earned in all their high school classes were collected from nationally representative samples of high school students beginning with the longitudinal study in 1982. Drawing upon these data, the next section of this analysis presents trends in the coursetaking patterns of public and private high school graduates between 1982 and 2004.9

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8All high school courses recorded in student transcripts are coded in accordance with the Classification Scheme of Secondary School Courses (CSSC). Courses in the CSSC taxonomy can then be grouped according to their academic level to classify a student's highest level of coursetaking within a particular subject. The CSSC is designed to describe course offerings in secondary education and to provide a coherent means for classifying these courses in this way. Each CSSC code has six digits, with an associated course title, alternate titles, and a course description. (back to text)

9The definition of a high school graduate and what was considered a complete transcript record differs slightly between survey collections and other NCES reports. See supplemental note 12 for more detail. (back to text)