Improving High School: A Strategic Approach
May 9, 2005
This paper summarizes our recent report on the success and shortcomings of high schools in California. High school represents a critical phase in the educational
development of K-12 students. Our report examines high schools through the lens
of three groups of high school students.
Dropouts (Students Who Fail to Graduate).
About 30 percent of the entering ninth grade class fails to graduate on time.
Research and data suggest that the factors leading to student dropouts are in
place by the time students enter ninth grade. Despite decades of trying,
research has not identified programs or services that consistently reduce
The "General" Track (Students Who Graduate Without
Qualifying for a Four-Year University). This includes about 45 percent
of entering ninth grade students. About one-half of this group attends college
after graduation and the other one-half enters the labor force. Research and
data indicate that many in this group do not have clear postgraduation goals,
which prevents these students from using
high school most effectively to make a smoother transition to adult life.
The "University" Track (Students Who Graduate and
Qualify for Admission to the State’s Public Four-Year Universities).
These students account for about one-quarter of entering ninth grade
students. Entering college freshmen frequently lack the English or mathematics
skills required for study at the university level. Higher education admissions
and placement policies contribute to the problem, as they fail to clearly
communicate the skill levels needed for success in college.
Despite considerable differences in the problems facing
these groups, several themes emerge in our recommendations that are consistent
across the groups. Our recommendations address the problems experienced by high
school students by strengthening accountability, improving information, and
We recommend the Legislature "fine
tune" accountability programs by:
- Adjusting existing accountability programs to focus more
attention on the needs of students who are likely to drop out of school.
- Establishing accountability for improving student transitions to
college and work.
- Aligning K-12 and higher education standards
by using Standardized Testing and Reporting scores as admissions data for the University
of California and the California State University.
We also suggest several ways the
Legislature could employ information to help make high schools more responsive
to student needs by:
- Obtaining accurate dropout data by school and district within two
- Evaluating state supplemental instruction and social promotion
programs for elementary and middle school students.
- Providing additional information and choices
to help parents and students use high school to reach student goals for work
Flexibility also is a theme of our
report. Improvements could be made by:
- Encouraging schools to provide a greater range of curricular
options that respond to the needs and interests of students.
- Giving districts greater latitude to use
existing state and federal resources effectively to meet the needs of students.
The Bottom Line
While many critical factors are outside of the state’s
control, we think our recommendations provide a strategic approach for how the
state can contribute to improving high schools.