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Education Statistics Quarterly
Vol 1, Issue 1, Topic: Elementary/Secondary Education
Do Gatekeeper Courses Expand Education Options?
By: Robert Atanda
 

Introduction

Enrollment in advanced-level math and foreign language courses while in high school is not always an option for most students. It requires advance planning by both students and parents. For example, parents who have high expectations for their children's education realize that many advanced-level courses require prerequisites. Thus, planning and enrolling in the necessary foundation courses, such as algebra and foreign language during eighth grade, can place a student higher in the math and foreign language pipelines and may eventually lead to decisions, such as applying to college, that are highly related to attending a college (Berkner and Chavez 1997). According to the U.S. Department of Education's white paper, "Mathematics Equals Opportunity," students who plan to take advanced mathematics courses during high school and begin to study algebra during middle school are at a clear advantage (U.S. Department of Education 1997). With this potential advantage in mind, this report examines the relationship between applying to a 4-year college or university and enrollment in algebra or a foreign language as an eighth-grader, in combination with high school course-taking patterns (math and foreign language). For this analysis, pipeline-level variables were created for math and foreign language based on high school coursework.

The data in this report were obtained from the base-year and second follow-up surveys of the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88). NELS:88 began with a sample of 1,052 schools and 24,599 eighth-graders. These eighth-grade cohort members were resurveyed in 1990 and 1992, while in high school, to determine their educational progress as well as their school, work, and community experiences. Data from the base-year (1988) and second follow-up (1992) surveys were used in this report. The results of this report--based on data from 12,053 of the students from the original cohort--apply to students who were eighth-graders in 1988 and graduated from high school in 1992.

Highlights include the following:

  • Enrollment in gatekeeper courses, such as algebra and foreign language, in eighth grade helps students reach higher levels in the mathematics and foreign language pipelines. For example, students who enrolled in algebra as eighth-graders were more likely to reach high-level math courses (e.g., algebra 3, trigonometry, or calculus) in high school than those students who did not enroll in algebra as eighth-graders.

  • Reaching higher levels in the mathematics and foreign language pipelines, combined with enrollment in eighth-grade algebra or eighth-grade foreign language, provides students with an advantage. For example, students who enrolled in algebra as eighth-graders and completed a high-level math course during high school were more likely to apply to a 4-year college than those students who did not enroll in algebra as eighth-graders but who also completed a high-level math course during high school.
For many students, a college education can be very difficult to obtain. For others, though, the process is easier. They are able to apply, attend, and graduate with a postsecondary degree. Why is the process easier for these students? One explanation may be that these students receive an early start in core subjects, such as math and foreign language. Taking algebra or a foreign language in the eighth grade may help contribute to students enrolling in high-level math and foreign language courses during high school, which is associated with applying to a 4-year college. In the next two sections, this report examines the relationships between course-taking behavior in math and foreign language, and application to college.

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In America's education system, math and foreign language are known as sequential subjects. Usually, students do not enroll in calculus before they complete algebra, geometry, trigonometry, or precalculus; nor do they complete French IV with a passing grade and then enroll in French I. It is typical for students to begin in the lower level courses before enrolling in the more advanced classes. Due to the sequential nature of the subjects, it is advantageous for students to initiate these course sequences before high school. Coursework in algebra and a foreign language during eighth grade enables students to reach higher levels in math and foreign language during high school.

Figure 1 presents information about 1988 eighth-grade students who enrolled in an algebra course that met at least once a week. Thirty-seven percent of those 1988 eighth-grade students who enrolled in algebra completed a high-level math course (algebra 3, trigonometry, calculus, etc.) by 1992, compared with 29 percent of those eighth-grade students who did not take algebra. This same pattern is true for foreign language. Twenty-five percent of those 1988 eighth-graders who enrolled in a foreign language in eighth grade completed a high-level foreign language course (at least .5 Carnegie unit of 12th-grade language)* by 1992, compared with 10 percent of those students who did not enroll in a foreign language as eighth-graders.


Figure 1.-Percentage of 1992 high school graduates who completed high-level mathematics and foreign language courses, by enrollment status in algebra and foreign language as eighth-grader

NOTE: High-level math refers to any combination of one or more of the following subjects: trigonometry, algebra 3, statistics, calculus, probability, or analytical geometry. High-level foreign language indicates that the student completed at least .5 Carnegie unit of 12th-grade language.

SOURCE: National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, base year (1988), second follow-up (1992), and transcript study.


Enrolling in foreign language and math courses during eighth grade is only one step toward academic advancement; completing high-level classes in these courses is also an important step. Table 1 provides additional information about students at different levels in the math and foreign language pipelines.

Table 1. (click here)Graphic link to the table

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Generally, completing an application is a required step for admission and subsequent enrollment in a 4-year college or university. This section presents data showing that eighth- grade enrollment in algebra or foreign language is associated with postsecondary education even when controlling for high school course taking. Enrolling in algebra or a foreign language during eighth grade, in addition to completing higher levels in math or foreign language, is associated with this measure of academic success.

As shown in figure 2a, 12th-grade students who enrolled in algebra as eighth-graders were more likely to apply to a 4-year college at each level of high school math course taking (72 percent of students completing high-level math, 59 percent of those completing middle-level math, and 53 percent of those finishing low-level math) than their counterparts at each level who did not enroll in algebra in eighth grade (42, 29, and 24 percent, respectively). Algebra in eighth grade is also advantageous when one compares those students who only completed a middle- or low-level math course with those who did not take eighth-grade algebra, but completed a high-level math course during high school. Twelfth-grade students who enrolled in algebra as eighth-graders and who only completed a middle- or low-level math course during high school were more likely to apply to a 4-year college (59 and 53 percent for middle- and low-level math, respectively) than those students who did not enroll in algebra as eighth-graders, but who completed a high-level math course during high school (42 percent).


Figure 2a.-Percentage of 1992 high school graduates who applied to a 4-year college, by enrollment in eighth-grade algebra and highest level of high school math completed

NOTE: High-level math refers to trigonometry, algebra 3, statistics, calculus, probability, and analytical geometry. Middle-level math refers to algebra 1 and geometry. Low-level math refers to pre-algebra and informal geometry.

SOURCE: National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, base year (1988), second follow-up (1992), and transcript study.


The same patterns are evident with foreign language course taking. Figure 2b shows that 12th-grade students who enrolled in a foreign language in eighth grade were more likely to apply to a 4-year college at each level of high school foreign language course taking (78 percent of stu-dents completing high-level foreign language, 67 percent of those completing middle-level foreign language, and 50 percent of those finishing low-level foreign language) than their counterparts at each level who did not enroll in a foreign language in eighth grade (52, 44, and 32 percent, respectively). Moreover, 67 percent of 12th-grade students who enrolled in a foreign language as eighth-graders and completed a middle-level language course (at least .5 Carnegie unit of 10th-grade language) during high school applied to a 4-year college, compared with 52 percent of those students who did not enroll in a foreign language as eighth-graders, but who completed a high-level foreign language course during high school.


Figure 2b.-Percentage of 1992 high school graduates who applied to a 4-year college, by enrollment in eighth-grade foreign language and highest level of high school foreign language completed

NOTE: High-level foreign language indicates student completed at least .5 Carnegie unit of 12th-grade language. Middle-level foreign language indicates student completed at least .5 Carnegie unit of 10th-grade language. Low-level foreign language indicates student completed anything less than .5 Carnegie unit of 10th-grade language.

SOURCE: National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, base year (1988), second follow-up (1992), and transcript study.


This section has emphasized the importance of enrolling in eighth-grade algebra or foreign language. Not only is it beneficial to reach high levels in math and foreign language during high school, but, as represented by the results, it is also important to start taking these courses before high school.

For those students who plan to attend a 4-year college, it is important to note that most 4-year postsecondary schools require students to meet basic requirements in both math and a foreign language during high school. The aforementioned results indicate that enrolling in either algebra or a foreign language in the eighth grade is beneficial to students applying to a 4-year college; however, those students who enroll in both eighth-grade algebra and a foreign language are at an even greater advantage. As shown in table 2, 12th-grade students who enrolled in both algebra and a foreign language as eighth-graders were more likely to apply to a 4-year college than those students who enrolled in only one or none of these courses during eighth grade (78 percent of students who enrolled in both algebra and a foreign language, 56 percent of students who enrolled in either algebra or a foreign language, and 29 percent of students who enrolled in neither algebra nor a foreign language).


Table 2. -Percentage of 1992 high school graduates who applied to a 4-year college, by levels reached in the math and foreign language pipelines and enrollment in eighth-grade foreign language or algebra

High-level math refers to trigonometry, algebra 3, statistics, calculus, probability, and analytical geometry. Middle-level math refers to algebra 1 and geometry. Low-level math refers to pre-algebra and informal geometry.

High-level foreign language indicates student completed at least .5 Carnegie unit of 12th-grade language. Middle-level foreign language indicates student completed at least .5 Carnegie unit of 10th-grade language. Low-level foreign language indicates student completed anything less than .5 Carnegie unit of 10th-grade language.

SOURCE: National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, base year (1988), second follow-up (1992), and transcript study.

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Not all students who take higher level math or foreign language courses in high school apply to 4-year colleges or universities during their senior year in high school. However, students who enroll in algebra or a foreign language during eighth grade are more likely to pursue a 4-year postsecondary education at the end of high school. This is true regardless of the level of math or foreign language attained by these students. For any student who aspires to obtain a postsecondary degree, it is useful for the planning process to commence as early as eighth grade or even before. The results of this study are useful for students who plan to attend college and their parents in determining some of the factors that are associated with attaining academic success.

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Footnotes

*One Carnegie unit is equivalent to a 1-hour class that meets 5 days a week for 1 school year, and 12th-grade language is equivalent to the fourth level of a particular language (e.g., French IV).


Berkner, L., and Chavez, L. (1997). Access to Postsecondary Education for the 1992 High School Graduates (NCES 98-105). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. Department of Education. (1997). "Mathematics Equals Opportunity."White paper prepared for the U.S. Secretary of Education, Richard W. Riley.

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Data sources:
The National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88), base year (1988), second follow-up (1992), and transcript study.

For technical information, see the complete Statistics in Brief:
Atanda, R., Do Gatekeeper Courses Expand Education Options? (NCES 1999-303).

For additional details about NELS second follow-up methodology, see

Ingels, S.J., Dowd, K.L., Baldridge, J.D., Stipe, J.L., Bartot, V.H., and Frankel, M.R. (1994). National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, Second Follow-Up: Student Component Data File User's Manual (NCES 94-374).

Ingels, S.J., Dowd, K.L., Taylor, J.R., Bartot, V.H., Frankel, M.R., Pulliam, P.A., and Quinn, P. (1995). National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, Second Follow-Up: Transcript Component Data File User's Manual (NCES 95-377).

Author affiliation:R. Atanda is affiliated with NCES.

For questions about content, contact Robert Atanda (Robert.Atanda@ed.gov).

To obtain the Statistics in Brief (NCES 1999-303), call the toll-free ED Pubs number (877-433-7827), visit the NCES Web Site (http://nces.ed.gov), or contact GPO (202-512-1800).

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