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. 

Double-dose algebra and English.  In the early 2000s, CPS began requiring students who entered ninth grade with test scores below the national median in reading or math to take two periods of Algebra or English. UChicago CCSR studies showed that the double-dose algebra policy led students to get substantially higher test scores but that they were more likely to fail despite learning more algebra.  Subsequent research showed that the policy affected classroom climate and the quality of instruction through ability sorting, professional development/resources for double-algebra teachers, and the availability of time, and these changes explain the changes in student outcomes.  Students with disabilities benefited less from the policy than other students with below-average skills.  There were almost no discernible benefits from double English, with the exception of slight improvements in reading scores for students with the very lowest reading skills.

The International Baccalaureate Program. In 1997, CPS sought to expand opportunities for the most academically strong students by putting International Baccalaureate programs into neighborhood high schools.  UChicago CCSR found substantial benefit to students from participating in the IB program, when compared to similar students not in IB programs, students who participated in the IB program were more likely to attend four-year colleges, more likely to attend more selective colleges, and more likely to persist in college.  IB students felt well-prepared to meet the challenges of college and were particularly sanguine about their writing and critical thinking skills and their ability to manage large, complex workloads.  A report was released in March 2012.

Senior year. Students’ senior year is the time when students are making plans for college and careers. Unfortunately, UChicago CCSR found that only the most high-achieving students tend to take a rigorous course of study that is likely to prepare them for college.  Students with marginal qualifications who most need to develop good study habits for college often take very little coursework in 12th grade, and students with very weak qualifications do not take a curriculum that is likely to lead them into successful careers. The study also found that coursetaking varies widely across high schools, even among similarly qualified students, suggesting the critical role that high schools play in structuring students’ opportunities to take advanced coursework.  A report was released in February 2013.

Instructional Delivery Systems (IDS). In 2006, CPS embarked on curricular reform through the IDS program.  Through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the district contracted external vendors to develop curriculum materials in high school English, mathematics, and science with unit-by-unit guides for teachers with clear goals and targets for each unit, model lessons, summative and diagnostic assessments, guides for professional development for teachers to use these materials, and intensive classroom-based coaching. UChicago CCSR partnered with SRI and RAND to document some of the outcomes of the IDS program, which generally showed no improvements in student achievement.  Subsequent work showed that teachers reported better professional development as schools joined IDS, and that math instruction improved in the first year.  However, most of the IDS schools had disorderly instructional climates before implementation, and classroom order became worse with the implementation of IDS.  Weak instructional climates undermined the ability of teachers to implement the curriculum well.

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.

College readiness indicator system. UChicago CCSR researchers are developing an indicator system to measure and better understand college readiness using students' performance during the high school year. This study also  extends  predictors of college readiness to the middle grade years.

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.