Rigor and Readiness in High Schools as Preparation for the Future

There is a growing consensus that the role of high schools must not only be to make sure students receive high school diplomas but also to prepare students for college, work, and life. Under this research strand of work, we are examining what strategies promote high school graduation and college readiness, through three general areas of work:  (1) high school curriculum and instruction; (2) postsecondary outcomes; and (3) high school graduation.

Studies on High School Curriculum and Instruction

Increasing academic rigor has been almost universally accepted as the primary strategy for preparing more students for college.  Chicago has enacted a number of policies intended to increase the rigor of students’ curriculum in an effort to prepare more students to succeed in college and careers.  UChicago CCSR has studied a number of these policies, and continues to study the mechanisms through which classroom instruction is related to students’ achievement.

College-prep curriculum for all. In 1997, CPS ended remedial coursework and required all students to enroll in a college-preparatory curriculum. UChicago CCSR studies found that it led to more students taking and earning credit in college-prep courses, but no benefits in terms of academic achievement or educational attainment. There were adverse educational effects on both low-skill and high-skill students. UChicago CCSR is starting a follow-up study on the degree to which the results of the policy came from changes in the curriculum versus changes in the ways in which students were sorted into classes. 

Classroom instructional environments: What matters for students’ grades and test gains. This line of work emerged out of the curriculum studies as an effort to understand why all these new curricula were not more successful in terms of their effects on student achievement.  Through analysis of teacher and student surveys, UChicago CCSR researchers examined the relationships of classroom instructional elements with students’ grades and test score gains, and developed typologies of classroom and school types. The study found that the relationship of academic demands with student achievement depends on other elements of classroom instruction—classroom behavior (orderly student behavior) and support.  Test gains depend on the combination of orderly, well-managed classrooms along with challenging instruction.  Good grades and pass rates depend on students getting sufficient support to handle the demands of the class.  Another related study examines the degree to which grades and attendance depend on which teacher a student has, and the characteristics of the classroom.  

Noncognitive factors that affect student achievement. Despite all the attention to standardized tests, a growing body of research shows that achievement test scores are not strong predictors of whether students will graduate from high school or college, and that factors not measured on tests are critical for academic success. UChicago CCSR researchers conducted a critical literature review of the research on these “non-cognitive factors” and developed a framework that shows how they are related to students’ academic performance.

What does rigor look like in practice? Using case studies of strong classrooms, UChicago CCSR researchers show what rigor looks like in real classrooms and develop a framework to show the elements that characterize rigorous instruction from the perspective of students. 

Postsecondary Outcomes

Beginning in 2003, UChicago CCSR engaged in a partnership with the Chicago Public Schools to track all CPS graduates into college and work and to inform the building of systems of supports that ensure that students and schools are focused on postsecondary access and success. Through a series of reports titled "From High School to the Future," UChicago CCSR research documented issues that affect CPS students’ likelihood of going to college and graduating. UChicago CCSR continues this line of work. 

College Match. UChicago CCSR researchers are further studying the role of college choice, and particularly college match, in college retention and graduation for CPS students. The goal is to understand the processes by which the institutional characteristics of more selective colleges may lead to more positive college outcomes for CPS students.

Postsecondary coaches. Affiliated researcher James Rosenbaum looked at whether a new counseling model aimed at creating social capital improves college enrollment. They found that college coaches improve the types of colleges students attend by getting students to complete key actions in the postsecondary enrollment process, with the most disadvantaged students benefiting most.

Community colleges. Affiliated researcher Sara Goldrick-Rab and her colleagues examined the effects of community college attendance for different students. They found that enrolling at a community college appears to penalize more-advantaged students who otherwise would have attended four-year colleges. However, enrolling at a community college has a modest positive effect on bachelor’s degree completion for disadvantaged students who otherwise would not have attended college; these students represent the majority of community college-goers.

Evaluation of indicator systems. UChicago CCSR is starting to develop systems for evaluating the use of indicators of college readiness in the middle grades and high school to assist CPS and districts across the country as they develop their own indicators of high school and college readiness.  This project will develop methods for: (1) evaluating which indicators have the most potential leverage for changing student achievement; (2) evaluating the interventions/programs associated with the indicators; (3) developing demonstration reports; and (4) determining whether the indicator systems have resulted in improved student outcomes.

High School Graduation

While focusing on college readiness, we are also aware that high school graduation and dropout continue to be a substantial concern in Chicago and the nation. In urban school districts, one-third to one-half of all students fails to earn a diploma. UChicago CCSR plans to continue to examine the issue of high school dropout rates and the strategies to increase the number of students who graduate high school. Our past research has shown that this is not a separate problem from college readiness; bringing more students to graduate is a first step to getting more students prepared for college, work, and life.