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Chapter 1. Elementary and Secondary Mathematics and Science Education

Transition to Higher Education

Ensuring that students graduate from high school on time (i.e., within 4 years) and are ready for college or the labor market has been an important goal of high school education in the United States for decades.[35] Increasingly, skills learned in high school do not guarantee access to jobs that support families, because most of the fastest-growing, well-paying jobs in today’s labor market require at least some postsecondary education (Carnevale, Smith, and Strohl 2010). About a quarter of U.S. public school students do not graduate from high school with a regular diploma within the expected period of 4 years (Chapman et al. 2011). Among those who do graduate from high school, many go to college or combine school with work, but some enter the labor market without pursuing additional education, at least in the short term (Ingels et al. 2012).

This section updates several indicators related to U.S. students’ transitions from high school to college, including on-time high school graduation rates, long-term trends in immediate college enrollment after high school, the high school graduation and postsecondary entry rates of U.S. students relative to those of students in other countries, and remediation rates among students entering postsecondary institutions across the United States. Together, these indicators present a broad picture of the transition of U.S. students from high school to postsecondary education, the topic of chapter 2.

Completion of High School

High school completion in the United States can be defined and measured in a variety of ways (Seastrom et al. 2006). Based on a relatively inclusive definition—receiving a regular high school diploma or earning an equivalency credential, such as a General Educational Development (GED) certificate—about 83% of the U.S. population ages 18–24 had completed a high school education in 2009 (Snyder and Dillow 2012).

Beginning with the 2011–12 school year, the U.S. Department of Education required all states to use a more restricted definition, emphasizing on-time graduation and considering only recipients of diplomas (Curran and Reyna 2010; Chapman et al. 2011). Under this definition, the high school graduation rate is calculated as the percentage of students in a freshman class who graduate with a regular diploma 4 years later (Seastrom et al. 2006). This rate requires student-level data over time. Because not all states had these longitudinal data prior to the 2011–12 school year, the U.S. Department of Education currently uses one of the best estimates—the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR)—to measure on-time high school graduation rates (Seastrom et al. 2006). The AFGR calculation divides the aggregate count of the number of diplomas in a particular year by the estimated size of the incoming freshman class 4 years earlier.[36] Starting with the 2011–12 school year, the U.S. Department of Education required all states to use a measure that is based on student-level data over time in order to increase the accuracy of on-time graduation rates (U.S. Department of Education 2012b). To facilitate state-by-state comparisons, the governors of all 50 states agreed to work toward implementing this method to tabulate statistics for their public high schools (NGA 2005).

On-Time Graduation Rates from 2006 to 2010

The U.S. on-time graduation rate among public high school students has increased steadily since 2006 (appendix table 1-20). In 2010, 78% of public high school students graduated on time with a regular diploma, up from 73% in 2006 (figure 1-18). Asian or Pacific Islander students (94%) graduated on time at a higher rate than did white students (83%) who, in turn, had a higher on-time graduation rate than did black, Hispanic, and American Indian or Alaska Native students (66%–71%). Between 2006 and 2010, however, on-time graduation rates improved more among black (from 59% to 66%), Hispanic (from 61% to 71%), and American Indian or Alaska Native (from 62% to 69%) students than among white (from 80% to 83%) and Asian or Pacific Islander (from 89% to 93%) students, therefore narrowing the gaps between black, Hispanic, and American Indian or Alaska Native students and their white and Asian or Pacific Islander counterparts.

Sex differences in on-time graduation rates persisted over time (appendix table 1-20). In each year between 2006 and 2009,[37] the percentage of male students who graduated from high school within 4 years was lower than that of female students. In 2009, for example, graduation rates for male students lagged behind those for female students by 8 percentage points (73% versus 81%).

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

Each year, OECD estimates upper secondary graduation rates for its member countries and selected nonmember countries by dividing the number of graduates in a country by the number of people at the typical graduation age (OECD 2012).[38] These estimates enable a broad comparison among nations and illuminate the U.S. standing internationally. U.S. graduation rates are below those of many OECD countries. Of the 26 OECD nations for which graduation rate data were available in 2010, the United States ranked 22nd, with an average graduation rate of 77% compared with the OECD average of 84% (appendix table 1-21). The top-ranked countries include Japan, Greece, Korea, Ireland, Slovenia, Finland, Israel, and the United Kingdom, each of which had high school graduation rates above 90%.[39]

The relative standing of U.S. high school graduation rates has not improved during recent years. Among the 21 OECD countries for which graduation rate data were available in 2006, 2008, and 2010,[40] the United States ranked 16th in both 2006 and 2008 and 17th in 2010 (OECD 2008, 2010, 2012).

Enrollment in Postsecondary Education

Upon completing high school, students make critical choices about the next stage of their lives. Today, a majority of U.S. high school students expect to attend college at some point, and many do so immediately after high school graduation. In 2010, 93% of high school seniors expected to attend a postsecondary institution, with 60% having definite plans to graduate from a 4-year college program and 24% having definite plans to attend graduate or professional school after college (Aud et al. 2012). In 2011, 68% of students enrolled in a postsecondary institution immediately after they graduated from high school (i.e., by the October following high school completion), with 27% enrolling in 2-year colleges and 41% enrolling in 4-year institutions (figure 1-19).

The immediate college enrollment rate increased from 51% in 1975 to 68% in 2011, though the upward trend appeared to level off from 2009 to 2011 (figure 1-19). Overall, immediate college enrollment rose more for women (from 49% to 72%) than for men (from 53% to 65%); thus, the enrollment pattern has shifted over time to higher enrollment rates for women than for men (appendix table 1-22).

Large gaps persisted among students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. In each year between 1975 and 2011, the immediate college enrollment rates were lower among students from low-income families than among students from middle- and high-income families (appendix table 1-22). In 2011, the immediate college enrollment rate of students from low-income families was about 29 percentage points lower than the rate of those from high-income families (53% versus 82%). Enrollment rates also varied with parental education, with students whose parents had only a high school education (54%) or some college (67%) trailing behind those whose parents had a bachelor’s or advanced degree (83%). Gaps existed among racial and ethnic groups as well. In each year between 1995 and 2011, for example, the enrollment rate of Hispanic students was lower than the rate for white students (e.g., 63% versus 69% in 2011). The immediate college enrollment rate of black students was also lower than the rate for white students in every year from 1995 to 2009 (e.g., 62% versus 71% in 2009).[41]

Postsecondary Enrollment in an International Context

Participation in education beyond secondary schooling has been rising in many countries (Altbach, Reisberg, and Rumbley 2009; OECD 2012). One measure of such participation is the OECD-developed first-time entry rate into a university-level education program (referred to as a “tertiary-type A” program by OECD[42]). This measure, though not perfect,[43] provides a broad comparison of postsecondary enrollment rates in the United States and those in other OECD countries.

According to OECD data, the percentage of U.S. young adults enrolling in university-level education for the first time was 74% in 2010, above the OECD average of 62% (figure 1-20). The United States ranked 9th out of the 30 countries with available data. Women enroll in college at higher rates than men in most OECD countries, including the United States (appendix table 1-23). In the United States, women enrolled at a rate of 82% (compared with the OECD average of 69%), and men enrolled at a rate of 67% (compared with the OECD average of 55%).

Preparation for College

Despite the increasing numbers of U.S. students entering college, many are unprepared for college-level work and need remedial help to address their skill deficiencies (Kurlaender and Howell 2012). Nationally, half of first-time postsecondary students took some type of remedial course after they entered college, and 42% took one or more remedial math courses (table 1-15).[44] The overall remediation rates were much higher at 2-year institutions than at 4-year institutions (65% versus 37%) and at minimally selective 4-year institutions than at highly selective 4-year institutions (53% versus 22%). This variation largely reflects the kinds of students admitted to different types of institutions: 4-year colleges, particularly highly selective ones, tend to admit students with greater academic preparation than more accessible 2-year colleges, and this pattern, in turn, affects the number of students needing remedial education at these institutions (Berkner and Choy 2008).

[35] See the U.S. Education Dashboard at
[36] The incoming freshman class size is estimated by summing the enrollment in eighth grade for 1 year, ninth grade for the next year, and tenth grade for the year after, and then dividing by 3. For example, the 2009–10 on-time graduation rate equals the total number of diploma recipients in 2009–10 divided by the average membership of the eighth grade class in 2005–06, the ninth grade class in 2006–07, and the tenth grade class in 2007–08 (Stillwell and Sable 2013).
[37] Gender data were not available in 2010.
[38] Upper secondary education as defined by OECD corresponds to high school education in the United States. In the calculation of the U.S. graduation rates, OECD included only students who earned a regular diploma and excluded those who completed a GED certificate program or other alternative forms of upper secondary education. OECD defines the typical age as the age of the students at the beginning of the school year; students will generally be 1 year older than the age indicated when they graduate at the end of the school year. According to OECD, the typical graduation age in the United States is 17 years old. The U.S. high school graduation rates calculated by OECD cannot be directly compared with U.S. on-time graduation rates because of the different population bases and calculation methods for the two measures.
[39] Portugal’s rate, though at the top, was not reliable and therefore is not listed here.
[40] These countries are Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
[41] The 2011 immediate college enrollment rates for whites and blacks were not measurably different (69% and 65%, respectively).
[42] As defined by OECD, a “tertiary-type A” program provides education that is largely theoretical and is intended to provide sufficient qualifications for gaining entry into advanced research programs and professions with high-skill requirements. Entry into these programs normally requires successful completion of upper secondary education (e.g., high school); admission is competitive in most cases. Minimum cumulative duration at this level is 3 years of full-time enrollment.
[43] International comparisons are often difficult because of differences between education systems, types of degrees awarded across countries, and definitions used in different countries. Some researchers have pinpointed various problems and limitations of international comparisons and warned readers to interpret data including those published by OECD with caution (Adelman 2008; Wellman 2007).
[44] The data are from the U.S. Department of Education’s 2003–04 Beginning Postsecondary Longitudinal Study (BPS:04/09). This national, longitudinal study examines students who first began their postsecondary education in the 2003–04 academic year and follows them for 6 years through 2009. Students are considered to have participated in remedial education if they took a remedial course at some point during these 6 years according to their postsecondary transcripts.