What is the purpose of high school? Over the past several years America seems to have arrived at a consensus: The overarching goal of high school is to prepare students for college. The current mantra is “college ready for all,” which means high school students need to be focusing on academic preparation and study skills. It’s a rare issue that crosses party lines — both Republicans and Democrats can win points by pushing for a tougher, more competitive high school education.Driven by this notion, states and districts around the country have raised high school graduation requirements by increasing the number and rigor of required academic courses and by adding exit exams. Massachusetts doesn’t let students graduate unless they can pass the MCAS exam in English, math, and one science or technology subject. Americans, anxious about their competitiveness, look around the world and worry that, if anything, we’re not doing enough.
But as we push harder to create more demanding high schools that are more focused on college preparation, something is also going wrong.
Emerging research in the education world suggests that a tougher approach to high school academics might leave students no better prepared for college and work, while also increasing the number of high school dropouts. The National Research Council concluded that high school exit exams have decreased high school graduation rates in the United States by 2 percentage points without increasing achievement. In Chicago, a 2010 study found no positive effects on student achievement from a school reform measure that ended remedial classes and required college preparatory course work for all students. High school graduation rates declined, and there was no improvement in college enrollment and retention rates among students who did graduate.
The United States clearly needs more college graduates: We currently rank ninth in the world in four-year college graduation rates for domestic students, and President Obama has set a goal for the United States to be first in the world by 2020. (Read more.)