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2012 Spotlight

A Closer Look at High School Students in the United States Over the Last 20 Years

Activities Inside School

In this section, we look at how activities inside high schools have changed in the last twenty years, including coursetaking, distance education, absenteeism, and school crime and safety.

In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education, appointed by the U.S. Department of Education, released a report titled A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. The report contained five recommendations to improve our education system, and the first recommendation was that “state and local high school graduation requirements be strengthened and that, at a minimum, all students seeking a diploma be required to lay the foundations in the Five New Basics by taking the following curriculum during their 4 years of high school: (a) 4 years of English; (b) 3 years of mathematics; (c) 3 years of science; (d) 3 years of social studies; and (e) one-half year of computer science.” More recently, concerns have been raised that our postsecondary system is not producing enough graduates in fields focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). For that to happen, high school students must take related course work to prepare them for rigorous college programs in STEM fields.

The percentage of high school graduates who took mathematics and science courses (or combinations of these courses) while in high school—namely, algebra I, geometry, algebra II/trigonometry, analysis/precalculus, statistics/probability, calculus, biology, chemistry, physics, both biology and chemistry, and all three science courses (biology, chemistry, and physics)—increased from 1990 to 2009 in all subjects except algebra I, for which the percentage decreased (see indicator 31). The decrease in the percentage of students taking Algebra I in high school is likely due to an increase in the percentage taking it prior to high school. For example, 7 percent of 1990 graduates had taken calculus in high school, compared with 16 percent of 2009 graduates, and 1 percent of 1990 graduates had taken statistics/probability, compared with 11 percent of graduates in 2009. In science, 49 percent of 1990 graduates had taken chemistry and 21 percent had taken physics. These percentages were 70 percent for chemistry and 36 percent for physics for 2009 graduates. Similarly, 19 percent of 1990 graduates had taken biology, chemistry, and physics in high school, compared with 30 percent of 2009 graduates.

A more recent change in coursetaking has been an increase in enrollments in distance education courses. Distance education courses are defined as courses that are credit-granting, technology-delivered, have either the instructor in a different location than the students and/ or have the course content developed in, or delivered from, a different location than that of the students. There were over 1.3 million high school student enrollments in distance education courses in 2009-10, an increase of over 1 million enrollments from 2002-03, when there were 222,000 enrollments (see indicator 15).

In 2009-10, some 53 percent of school districts in the United States had high school students enrolled in distance education courses. Twenty-two percent of districts that offered distance education courses in 2009-10 reported that students enrolled in regular high school programs could take a full course load in an academic term using only distance education courses, while 12 percent reported that students could fulfill all high school graduation requirements using only distance education. In 2009-10, the most widely used technology for the instructional delivery of distance education courses was via the internet using asynchronous (not simultaneous) instruction, with 63 percent of districts that offered distance education courses reporting this as the prime delivery mode.

In 2009, when asked about their school attendance in the previous month, 38 percent of 12th-grade students reported perfect attendance, 39 percent reported missing 1-2 days, 15 percent reported missing 3-4 days, and 8 percent reported missing 5 or more days (see indicator 28). A higher percentage reported perfect attendance in 2009 than in 1992 (38 vs. 35 percent, respectively), and there were lower percentages in 2009 than in 1992 that reported missing 3-4 days (15 vs. 17 percent) and missing 5 or more days (8 vs. 9 percent).

In general, lower student performance is associated with higher student absenteeism. For 12th-grade students, there was no measureable difference in reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in either 1992 or 2009 between students who had perfect attendance (296 and 292, respectively) and those who reported missing 1-2 days in the previous month (295 and 290). However, in both years, these scores were higher than for those who reported missing 3-4 days (287 and 284, respectively) and 5 or more days (279 and 273).

Another factor in the school environment is safety, including the rate of nonfatal incidents of crime against students ages 12-18 at school. Nonfatal crime includes theft and all violent crime; violent crime includes serious violent crime (rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault) and simple assault. The rate of nonfatal crime against students ages 12-18 declined between 1992 and 2010 (see Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2011, NCES 2012-002, 2.1). This pattern held for the following three subcategories: theft, violent crime, and serious violent crime. Specifically, from 1992 to 2010, the rate of nonfatal crime against students at school declined from 154 to 32 crimes per 1,000 students; the theft victimization rate, from 101 to 18 thefts per 1,000 students; the violent crime rate, from 53 to 14 crimes per 1,000 students; and the serious violent crime rate, from 8 to 4 crimes per 1,000 students.

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