When the Value of High School Is Exaggerated

It turns out that students who take AP classes don’t actually get better college grades.

Jae C. Hong / AP

As more students pursue college, high schools are becoming increasingly bullish about enrolling students in advanced classes. These courses, the standard refrain goes, will prepare young people for the rigor of higher education and set them up for success as they embark on their college careers.

Not so fast, say a pair of researchers in a new Brookings Institution blog post. “We found confirmatory evidence that advanced high-school courses apparently do little to prepare students for success in college coursework,” write Gregory Ferenstein, a former TechCrunch reporter (who has also written for The Atlantic), and Brad Hershbein, a nonresident Brookings fellow and economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

The pair looked at thousands of high-school and college transcripts using the National Educational Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative survey of about 25,000 students that began in 1988. They found that, when they controlled for things like race, gender, socioeconomic background, and standardized-test scores, the courses that students took in high school had very little impact on college grades. In other words, if Tom took an economics class in high school, even an advanced one, and Joe did not, and then both young men enrolled in an economics course in college, they were likely to earn the same grade. Still, states are continuing to push more kids into advanced courses. “For some reason, the belief persists,” Hershbein said.

That belief may persist in part because earning a good grade in a college course isn’t necessarily a student’s reason for taking an AP class in the first place. A young person might take an AP class in high school so she can skip a similar course in college or bypass a subject entirely. But getting at what drives students to sign up for certain courses, advanced or otherwise, was beyond the scope of this research.

While the authors were able to look at the first college class students took in a subject, it wasn’t clear whether the students had received college credit for doing well on an earlier AP exam. So if a student took a chemistry class in high school and then took Chemistry 101 as a college freshman and earned the same grade as another student in the class who had never set foot in a high-school chemistry course, the authors’ conclusion that high-school coursework doesn’t predict college success makes sense. But if a kid took AP Chemistry in high school and then jumped straight to a sophomore-level chemistry class, whether that kid earned a better grade might be less relevant than the fact that the high-school class saved him time and money by allowing him to skip ahead in college. And there is certainly variation in how teachers teach and what gets included in, say, AP biology classes, meaning some advanced classes are likely more beneficial for students than others.

Hershbein insists that he and Ferenstein aren’t arguing against sophisticated subject matter for kids who are ready to handle it. But the duo warn that the push to get more students into advanced classes is no definitive way to make sure students are prepared for college; it could ultimately harm kids who haven’t been adequately prepared for the material. “That’s not some sort of panacea where all of the sudden they will be college ready,” he said.

Instead, the pair thinks that if high schools want to prepare students for college, they should focus less on specific content and more on critical thinking and reasoning. Most students will forget the specifics of, say, mitosis shortly after they take their AP biology exam, but they might retain the broader concepts of conducting an experiment and presenting evidence. “It’s really the underlying skills that stay with people,” Hershbein said. That may be one reason that calculus seems to be the one exception in the research, where students who have exposure in high school benefit “mildly” in terms of better college grades. That’s “probably because it is based on cumulative learning to a greater extent than other subjects,” the authors note.

While Hershbein and Ferenstein argue somewhat bluntly that high schools are currently teaching the “wrong things,” they note that, in theory, the Common Core’s relatively new emphasis on argumentative writing and reasoning (showing how you reach a conclusion, instead of simply stating what the answer is) could be a positive shift in the way students learn. But Hershbein thinks it’s too early to tell what the long-term impact will be and that the somewhat botched roll-out of the standards has dampened the public’s perception.

The authors argue that while their research might sound dire, in reality, it might present an opportunity to bring more creativity and innovation to high-school instruction. Maybe a focus on non-cognitive skills, teamwork, or technical education would better prepare kids for college than a focus on mastering content they’ll soon forget, they posit. That shouldn’t mean eliminating all content, they clarify, but it should ease concerns that scaling back on drilling content to test new pedagogies will hurt kids.

Hershbein thinks further exploration of the early-college idea, where students take courses for credit at a local community college while they’re in high school, makes sense because, where it’s working, colleges and high schools tend to collaborate on the curriculum and there’s a mutual understanding of the skills students need to succeed in college.

Ashley Griffin, the director of K-12 research at the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group that aims to help low-income children and students of color succeed, thinks the study raises “good questions.” But she pointed out that “there are a lot of ways to understand how students are successful in college and there are a lot of variables that go into that.” A separate report from Education Trust found that many high schools prioritize credit accrual over actual knowledge and skill development. That’s pretty similar to what Hershbein and Ferenstein are saying in their new post. But while the pair are advocating the rethinking of what exactly kids need to know to succeed in college, the Education Trust is focused on the fact that children from poor families, who are more likely to be Latino or black, are the least likely to complete the sequence of courses that many colleges look for when they are considering which students are prepared to succeed in college. In other words, even if, as this new research seems to suggest, success in those courses doesn’t translate to success in college, at the moment, a failure to complete them often means a rejection letter instead of admission, which can leave poor kids with few paths to prosperity.

Hershbein acknowledges that overhauling the way the U.S. educates its high-school students is a huge prospect. And there’s a coordination issue; teaching schools, the K-12 education system, and colleges don’t do a great job right now of communicating with each other about what they want and need, he pointed out. “There’s a lot of inertia,”  he said. “I think there’s a fear and some paralysis about making any drastic changes.”