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Chapter 4: Academic Preparation and Achievement

Chapter 4 presents data on the academic preparation and achievement of males and females within and across racial/ethnic groups in areas of study that have been shown to be critical to postsecondary access, persistence, and attainment.

Academic preparation for college, in terms of coursetaking and achievement in courses such as mathematics and science, has been the subject of much research over the last 20 years. Studies have shown the importance of advanced mathematics and science coursetaking in students’ successful postsecondary matriculation and degree attainment (Chen 2009; NCES 2003). Adelman (2006) showed that after controlling for factors such as high school coursetaking among National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) sample members, gender and race were not associated with the completion of a 4-year college degree. Additionally, some 95 percent of students who had completed rigorous course sequences earned a bachelor’s degree within 8 years of high school graduation. For example, earning credits beyond algebra II in high school was associated with a higher likelihood of completion of a bachelor’s degree.

Algebra is known as a “gateway” course for the sequence of mathematics and science courses that prepares students for success in later schooling (Matthews and Farmer 2008; Walston and McCarroll 2010). Mathematics courses are typically organized sequentially, with enrollment in more advanced courses dependent upon completion of prerequisite courses. The earlier a student proceeds through algebra, then courses such as geometry and algebra II, the more opportunities he or she has for reaching higher level mathematics courses (e.g., trigonometry, precalculus, and calculus) in high school. Completion of higher level mathematics courses is related to a higher likelihood of entering a 4-year college or university (Schneider, Swanson, and Riegle-Crumb 1998; Walston and McCarroll 2010). Recent research has related completion of advanced mathematics courses in high school with entering into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics majors in college (Chen 2009; Walston and McCarroll 2010). Algebra may be integral to preparing students for success in college and the labor force, including careers in competitive mathematics- and science-related disciplines. The National Mathematics Advisory Panel (2008) noted that completing algebra II coursework during high school correlates positively with college graduation and employment income. While there may be differing opinions among researchers and practitioners, the panel suggested that elementary and middle school mathematics curricula should put more students on a path to enroll in algebra by the 8th grade. Looking at international data, Schmidt (2004) reported that algebra concepts are commonly taught in the 8th grade in many other countries and suggested that U.S. students would benefit from increased opportunities for algebra instruction in the 8th grade.

In a report by Horn and Kojaku (2001), a consistent advantage in college persistence was demonstrated for students who completed rigorous high school curricula, and to a lesser extent for those completing mid-level curricula, over their peers completing core curricula or lower. The highest threshold, or most rigorous curriculum, identified in the study included 4 years of English, 3 years of a foreign language, 3 years of social studies, 4 years of mathematics (including precalculus or higher), 3 years of science (including biology, chemistry, and physics), and taking at least one Advanced Placement (AP) course or test. Even when all family background characteristics, indicators of socioeconomic status, and selectivity of first postsecondary institution attended were taken into consideration, the association between completing a rigorous high school academic curriculum and higher levels of college persistence remained. In addition, studies have shown student performance on college entrance exams such as the SAT to be a statistically significant predictor of college persistence (Camara 2005; Titus 2004).