Significant benchmarks, such as learning to read or mastering algebraic equations, mark a student’s progress through grades K–8. But it is in high school that students face the ultimate benchmark—the ability to be successful in the adult world. If students leave high school without fundamental reading, writing, and math skills, they have few options for supporting themselves.
Many people use high school performance as the bellwether for how the K–12 system as a whole is performing. However, high schools are complicated places, and success can be defined in more than one way. A broad range of indicators, listed below, provides different perspectives on high school success.
High School Assessments
Like elementary and middle schools, high schools receive an Academic Performance Index () score. The California Standards Tests ( ) used in grades 9–11, which are aligned with the state’s academic , make up about 80% of a high school’s API. Tenth-grade results from the California High School Exit Exam ( ) comprise the remaining 20%. California’s high schools have shown consistently poorer performance on this index than the state’s elementary or middle schools.
The percentage of students passing the CAHSEE is another measure of high school success. Starting with the class of 2006, all California high school students must pass the CAHSEE—in addition to completing other graduation requirements—to receive a diploma. Students take the exit exam once in 10th grade and subsequently have five additional opportunities to retake each section (English and math) of the exam. If students fail the test, they can pursue a diploma through adult school or certain community colleges. They can also take the GED, a nationally recognized high school equivalency exam for adults.
High School Completion
In addition to passing the CAHSEE, California high school students must complete a minimum number of courses to graduate, though school districts can require more than the minimum. The extent to which students do this successfully can be measured in various ways, including calculating the percentage of students that graduates from high school or the percentage that drops out.
However, historically, California has calculated dropout and gradation rates without the benefit ofthat track individual students over time. As a result, the state has had to rely on estimates. In 2008, for the first time, California used data derived from statewide student identifiers (SSIDs) to determine graduation and dropout rates. Although more accurate than earlier calculations, the state emphasized that these rates are still estimates.
The methodology used to calculate the rates also has a substantial impact on final results. For example, the graduation rate attempts to measure what percentage of a group of 9th graders reach high school graduation. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (), this rate is determined by dividing the number of graduates by the number of graduates plus dropouts (based on data from schools) from the previous four years. California’s graduation rate using this method was 79.5% in 2006–07. This method can overestimate the graduation rate because local schools often under-report the number of students who drop out.
California also calculates graduation rates by dividing the number of graduates by the 9th grade enrollment four years prior. This approach underestimates graduates because it does not account for students who do not follow the traditional path and, for example, graduate early, move, or transfer to a private school. Under this approach, the 2006–07 graduation rate was 67.6%. However, because California now has SSID data, the state was able to estimate how many of the remaining students dropped out (24.2%) versus those who withdrew (e.g., transferred to a private school) or completed four years of high school but did not graduate (e.g., failed the exit exam). The estimated 8.2% of students who withdrew or completed high school but did not graduate are considered neither dropouts nor graduates.
College Readiness and Transitions
In California, one key summary measure of college readiness is whether high school graduates complete the course requirements necessary to be eligible for acceptance to a public four-year university. These “a–g” requirements serve as California’s default college preparatory curriculum and establish course-taking requirements beyond those needed for high school graduation. Typically, a little more than a third of the state’s high school students have successfully completed the “a–g” courses.
Another indicator of college readiness is whether students who enter a community college or four-year public university need to take remedial courses. When students graduate from high school and enroll in college, they generally assume that they are prepared to do college-level work. However, many are surprised to find that they must take courses in basic academic skills, which cost them time and money. Research shows that students who take extensive remedial coursework at the college level are less likely to attain their educational goal, whether that is a two-year certificate or a four-year degree.
One way to decrease the number of students needing remediation is to improve communication between higher education institutions and K–12 schools. The California State University Early Assessment Program (EAP)—another measure of college readiness—is intended to improve such communication, reduce the number of entering CSU students needing remediation, and smooth the transition from high school to college. The EAP aligns enhanced versions of the 11th grade English, Algebra II, and Summative High School Math CSTs with CSU placement criteria. High school students who test “proficient” on the enhanced tests are considered ready for college and do not need to take the CSU placement exam. Students who do not pass are informed that they need to take steps to improve their academic skills during their senior year.
In addition, dual enrollment programs—which allow high school students to take college courses—can be an effective strategy for reducing the numbers of students who need remediation and also improving communication between high schools and community colleges. These programs give high school students a preview of what is required in college-level courses and help them see which skills they need to improve. Middle College and Early College High School are examples of these programs. Dual enrollment programs vary, with some:
- Taking place at the college, and others at a high school site;
- Being taught by a California community college professor, and others a specially credentialed high school teacher;
- Offering college curriculum, and others combining college with the high school curriculum;
- Being full-time, and others part-time; and
- Having mixed classes of college and high school students, and others only high school students.
Work Readiness and Transitions
An absence of data on how well students are prepared for apprenticeships and job training programs, or on how many graduates find and keep an entry-level job, makes it difficult for California to measure students’ readiness for work.
Many students who finish high school want to start work or obtain training toward a particular career or trade. These students may have enrolled in career/tech programs in high school and may continue, or start, a program at a community college. They can enroll in a wide number of programs, such as cosmetology, biomedical sciences, or computer information systems.
Other students may enter apprenticeships, which are offered in more than 500 trades in California. These typically require a minimum of 2,000 hours of on-the-job, supervised training at a minimal wage along with a minimum of 144 hours of classroom instruction per year. A variety of trades—such as plumbers, electricians, painters, plasterers, ironworkers, and sprinkler fitters—provide apprenticeship programs independent of any college or school.
In addition, web-based career/tech programs provide more options for students. Although programs such as nursing that require hands-on training are inappropriate for this format, web-based courses can suit certain disciplines, such as accounting, quite well.