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Chapter 1. Elementary and Secondary Mathematics and Science Education

Transition to Higher Education

Preparing students for postsecondary education is an important goal of high schools in the United States. This section presents indicators related to students' transitions from high school to college. It begins with data on high school completion rates in the United States, followed by international comparisons of high school graduation rates. It then examines students' expectations for enrolling in college, the proportion of students enrolling in college immediately after completing high school, and the relative international standing of postsecondary enrollment rates in the United States. Together, these data present an overview of the nation's effectiveness in preparing students for postsecondary education, the topic of the next chapter.

Completion of High School

On-Time Graduation Rates

The on-time graduation rate in the United States is the percentage of students who graduate with a regular high school diploma 4 years after entering ninth grade. In 2009, 76% of students completed high school on time (table 1-9), an improvement from 73% in 2006 (Chapman, Laird, and KewalRamani 2010; Stillwell and Hoffman 2008). Asian/Pacific Islander students graduated on time at a higher rate than white students did (92% versus 82%).

Students of other races and ethnicities graduated at lower rates. Rates of black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native students were lowest, at 64%, 66%, and 65%, nearly 20–30 percentage points below the rate of white and Asian/Pacific Islander students. These rates have increased slightly since 2006, however, when they stood at 59%, 61%, and 62% respectively (Stillwell and Hoffman 2008). The gaps in on-time graduation rates between white and black students and between white and Hispanic students have declined slightly since 2006, by 3 percentage points.

Many students who did not complete high school within 4 years eventually went on to earn a high school diploma or equivalency credential. In 2008, an estimated 90% of 18- to 24-year-olds who were not enrolled in high school had received a high school diploma (84%) or earned an equivalency credential (6%), such as a General Educational Development (GED) certificate (Chapman, Laird, and KewalRamani 2010). Although most colleges and employers accept the GED as an alternative to a regular high school diploma, GED recipients do not fare as well as diploma holders across a variety of measures, including college completion rates and lifetime earnings (Chapman, Laird, and KewalRamani 2010).

Historically, not all states have used the same method for calculating graduation rates, leading to wide variation in the rates reported by each state. To facilitate state-by-state comparisons, the National Governors Association endorsed the NCES method as the standard method for calculating graduation rates in 2005, and all 50 governors agreed to work toward implementing that method (NGA 2005). This method calculates the high school graduation rate by dividing the number of graduates in a given year by the number of students who entered ninth grade 4 years earlier, adjusting the denominator for transfers into and out of the state over those 4 years.

Currently, 18 states use graduation rates calculated with this method to indicate whether they have met the graduation rate requirements for adequate yearly progress under NCLB (NGA 2010). Beginning with the 2011–12 school year, all states are required to use the NCES method. In addition, all states will be required to set and meet their own high school graduation rate goals by 2014. As of summer 2010, 22 states had set the graduation rate goal at 90% or higher, and 27 states had set the goal between 80 and 89%, an improvement over previous years, when more than half the states set the goal at 75% or lower (NGA 2010; NSB 2010a). In 2008, the federal government issued revised graduation rate requirements, including the provision that, beginning in 2011–12, states and districts must meet not only overall graduation rate goals but also graduation rate goals for all student subgroups to achieve adequate yearly progress (U.S. Department of Education 2008).

Traditionally, rates of high school completion have been difficult to calculate accurately because of varying requirements for earning a regular diploma across states and districts and inadequate state data systems that track outcomes for individual students (Barton 2009). The increased demand for accurate data for federal accountability purposes, both for graduation rates and other school outcomes, has led states to develop data systems to track student progress more accurately. In 2005, the federal government created a grants program designed to support states in their efforts to create statewide longitudinal data systems. These systems will track individual students from pre-kindergarten through high school, college, and beyond (see sidebar "State Student Tracking Systems").

High School Graduation Rates in the United States and Other OECD Nations

U.S. high school graduation rates calculated by OECD to articulate with reporting of other OECD members show that U.S. graduation rates are lagging behind those of other member countries. OECD calculates graduation rates by dividing the number of high school graduates in a country by the number of students of typical graduation age (OECD 2010a). Of the 25 OECD nations for which graduation rate data were available in 2008, the United States ranked 18th, with an average graduation rate of 77% compared with the OECD average of 80% (figure 1-14). The U.S. graduation rate remained at 77% from 2006 to 2008 according to OECD figures (OECD 2009, 2010b).

Enrollment in Postsecondary Education

A majority of high school seniors expect to continue their education after high school. Among the 2009 high school senior class, 86% of graduating students planned to attend a postsecondary institution in the first year after high school, with 62% planning to attend a 4-year institution, 19% planning to attend a 2-year college, and 5% planning to attend a vocational, technical, or business school (NCES 2010).

Not all students fulfilled these expectations for immediate college enrollment. Seventy percent of 2009 high school graduates had enrolled in a postsecondary institution by the October following high school completion (figure 1-15). Of these students, 28% enrolled in a 2-year college and 42% enrolled in a 4-year institution (appendix table 1-28).

From 1975 through 2009, the immediate college enrollment rate rose by 19 percentage points (from 51% to 70%). Female enrollment increased at a much higher rate (49% to 74%) than did male enrollment during the same period (53% to 66%). (For more detail on the gender gap in U.S. higher education enrollment and degree attainment, see chapter 2 sidebar "Gender Gap in Undergraduate Education.")

Immediate college enrollment in the United States is associated with parental education levels and family income. In 2009, 40% of students whose parents had less than a high school education enrolled in college immediately after high school completion, compared with 82% of students whose parents had a bachelor's or advanced degree (appendix table 1-28). Students from high-income families enrolled in college at higher rates than did students from middle- or low-income families (84% versus 67% and 55%, respectively) in 2009.

The rate of immediate enrollment in college for white students was 71%, compared with 63% for black and 62% for Hispanic students. Immediate college enrollment rates for black and Hispanic students have increased over time, showing gains of about 6 percentage points for blacks and 7 percentage points for Hispanics since 2002. However, the white-black and white-Hispanic gaps persisted over time.

Postsecondary Enrollment in an International Context

According to OECD data, the percentage of U.S. young adults enrolling in college for the first time was 64% in 2008. The overall average was 56% for the 25 countries participating in the study. The United States ranked 11th out of 25 in 2008 (appendix table 1-29). The data show that females enroll in college at higher rates than males in most OECD countries, including the United States. In the United States, females enrolled at a rate of 72% (compared with the OECD average of 63%), and males enrolled at a rate of 57% (compared with 50% internationally) (OECD 2010a).