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Policy and Research Issues

In each section, individual issues are introduced, specific policy and practice questions relevant to current debates are briefly described, and the role that HSLS:09 may play in investigating these questions detailed.

The issues discussed below are divided into three sections:

Issue: Transition into math and science courses in high school

Policy/Practice Questions: There is a growing consensus that our nation's future economic competitiveness depends upon strengthening our students' skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Policy innovations to increase and retain STEM college majors have been proposed, but little is known about the factors at the secondary school level that may affect the supply of possible STEM students in college and beyond.

HSLS:09 Role:

  • By beginning with a 9th grade cohort and including information collected from school counselors, NCES collected the data necessary to study how incoming 9th-graders were led into crucial early math and science courses that affected future coursework necessary for STEM career progress. By using data collected as part of the HSLS:09 transcript component and counselor questionnaire, researchers are able to examine the course sequences that are linked with students' entering STEM fields.
  • The school counselor and parent surveys allow for a detailed investigation of coursetaking, especially in science and mathematics. Of particular interest was developing a better understanding of what factors (e.g., previous grades, test scores, parental involvement) relate to who enrolls in Algebra I by 9th grade and how this impacted the rest of the high school experience.

Issue: Under-representation of high school graduates in STEM

Policy/Practice Questions: What are the factors in secondary education that predict STEM pipeline participation in college and beyond and can be targeted through policy innovation? How can policy makers close the gender gap in STEM?

HSLS:09 Role:

  • The inclusion of interest and motivation items in the student questionnaire gave NCES a more accurate instrument for measuring key factors predicting choice of postsecondary paths, including majors and eventual careers. Coupled with the mathematics assessment's focus on algebra and the administrator/counselor surveys, HSLS:09 provided a new set of predictors at the individual level for examining continuation in the STEM pipeline.

Issue: The effect of the nationís shifting demographics and the growth in language minority and first-generation student populations on student experience and performance in secondary school.

Policy/Practice Questions: Several indicators point to emerging challenges as school systems work to accommodate students entering high school with special language needs and from different cultural backgrounds. These indicators include measures of outcomes for individual students, such as high dropout rates, particularly among first-generation immigrants.

HSLS:09 Role:

  • HSLS:09's primary role in this area was to document existing strategies that schools are using to deal with these changes. In particular, the data can be used to examine the extent to which the racial/ethnic composition of the school was associated with student outcomes, such as on-time graduation and college going behavior.
  • Additionally, the data can be used to determine what school features tend to mitigate the academic challenges posed by students' varied languages and cultural backgrounds.

Issue: How do parents and students make decisions about postsecondary education?

Policy/Practice Questions: A combination of factors, including student academic achievement, vocational interests, parent finances, parental knowledge about sources of loans and grants, and a variety of student preferences combine to predict the decision to attend college and the choice of institution. A key question is: Why do some students, particularly first generation students, go to college and others don't?

HSLS:09 Role:

  • HSLS:09 provides data to understand the role of different factors in the development of a student's commitment to attend college and then to take the steps necessary to succeed in college (the right courses, courses in specific sequences, etc.). The study enabled NCES to move beyond the traditional covariates to ask "how do students and parents construct their postsecondary choice set?"
  • HSLS:09 questionnaires ask more questions of students and parents regarding reasons for selecting specific colleges (e.g., academic programs, financial aid and access prices, and campus environment). Compared to previous longitudinal studies, HSLS:09 was able to survey respondents during the critical junior and senior years regarding applications, acceptances, and rejections at colleges. A short computer-administered questionnaire procured information on college acceptances and actual choices. In past longitudinal studies, this activity has been delayed to later follow-ups (2 years after high school). By that time, it is difficult for respondents to accurately remember acceptances and rejections together with financial offers.
  • There is an obvious role for information to help parents and students better understand the choices available. With the HSLS:09 data, it is possible to examine questions such as: What is the relationship between parental aversion to debt and student preparation for college? When do students and parents start tangibly preparing and planning for college? How certain are they of the cost and process of applying to and attending college?
  • For many students, it may be the case that there is uncertainty and apparently bad information about the cost of college. It is unclear if parents know the real cost of education. If they think that college costs more than they can afford, students may not take the courses to get into college if the parents have concluded that college will be too expensive. The HSLS:09 study has expanded sections in the student and parent questionnaires that allow researchers to examine the effects of "bad information" regarding commitments that are made concerning attending college. It may also be possible for NCES to link information collected on FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) forms to HSLS:09 student records thus providing a clearer picture of family resources. Another issue is the number of students who attend community college initially because it costs less than a four-year college. Who chooses community colleges because it appears to be the only viable, economic option? Who chooses community college to better prepare for the transfer to a 4-year college?