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America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2013

High School Academic Coursetaking

Since A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, school reforms have emphasized increasing the number of academic courses students take in high school. More recent reforms have emphasized increasing the rigor, as well as the number, of courses taken. Research suggests a positive relationship between the level of difficulty of courses students take and their performance on assessments.105, 106

Indicator Ed3: Percentage of high school graduates who had completed selected coursework in mathematics, science, and foreign language, selected years 1982–2009
Percentage of high school graduates who had completed selected coursework in mathematics, science, and foreign language, selected years 1982–2009

NOTE: Data reflect only the percentage of graduates who earned credit for each course while in high school and do not count those graduates who took these courses prior to entering high school. "Algebra II" includes courses in which trigonometry or geometry has been combined with algebra II. The percentage for "biology and chemistry" indicates the percentage of graduates who completed at least one credit each in a biology and a chemistry course. The percentage for "biology, chemistry, and physics" indicates the percentage of graduates who had completed at least one course each in a biology, a chemistry, and a physics course. "Foreign language" includes a year 3, year 4, or advanced placement/international baccalaureate/honors course.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, High School Transcript Studies: High School and Beyond Study of 1980 Sophomores, and National Assessment of Educational Progress Transcript Study.

  • The percentage of 2009 high school graduates who had successfully completed a mathematics course in algebra II was higher than the corresponding percentage for 1982 graduates (76 vs. 40 percent). Also, a higher percentage of 2009 high school graduates than of 1982 graduates had taken a mathematics course in analysis/precalculus (35 vs. 6 percent). Eleven percent of those who graduated in 2009 had taken a course in advanced placement (AP)/international baccalaureate (IB)/honors calculus, compared with 2 percent in 1982.
  • In 2009, some 68 percent of all high school graduates had taken at least one course each in biology and chemistry, compared with 29 percent of all high school graduates in 1982. The percentage of high school graduates who had taken at least one course each in biology, chemistry, and physics was also higher in 2009 than in 1982 (30 vs. 11 percent). Higher percentages of 2009 high school graduates than of 1982 graduates had taken AP/IB/honors biology (22 vs. 10 percent), AP/IB/honors chemistry (6 vs. 3 percent), and AP/IB/honors physics (6 vs. 1 percent).
  • Since 1990, a majority of high school graduates have taken at least four courses in English. Eighty-eight percent of 2009 high school graduates took at least four courses in English.107
  • In foreign languages, the percentage of high school graduates who had taken a year 3, year 4, or AP/IB/honors course increased from 15 percent in 1982 to 40 percent in 2009. Eighty-six percent of 2009 high school graduates had taken at least some foreign language coursework, compared with 54 percent of 1982 graduates.
  • In general, the percentages of students who took the aforementioned courses in mathematics, science, and foreign languages increased from 2005 to 2009.
  • In 2009, high school graduates who completed a rigorous curriculum earned the highest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in mathematics and science.108

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105 Dalton, B., Ingels, S.J., Downing, J., and Bozick, R. (2007). Advanced mathematics and science coursetaking in the spring high school senior classes of 1982, 1992, and 2004. National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.

106 Leow, C., Marcus, S., Zanutto, E., and Boruch, R. (2004). Effects of advanced course-taking on math and science achievement: Addressing selection bias using propensity scores. American Journal of Evaluation, 25, 461–478.

107 Snyder, T.D., and Dillow, S.A. (2012). Digest of Education Statistics 2011 (NCES 2012-001). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.

108 Nord, C., Roey, S., Perkins, R., Lyons, M., Lemanski, N., Brown, J., and Schuknecht, J. (2011). The Nation's Report Card: America's high school graduates (NCES 2011-462). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.