ETS Policy Notes — Opportunity Offered, Opportunity Taken: Course-Taking in American High Schools

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Academic achievement course selection (students) high school students high schools mathematics education private schools public schools racial differences required courses rural schools science education second language learning sex differences small schools socioeconomic status


This issue of ETS Policy Notes (Volume 9, No. 1) provides information on the courses U.S. high school students select, differences in course offerings across different types of schools, and course-taking patterns by race, gender, and socioeconomic status. In general, the study found that public, secular private, and Catholic schools were more similar than different in their course offerings. Most striking was the relative lack of advanced course offerings in science and foreign languages, especially among secular private schools. Just under half of all schools require 3 or more years of mathematics, and only 32% of public high school students took 3 years of mathematics. One-fifth of all students took no coursework in foreign languages. In general, across mathematics, science, and foreign languages, students in private schools took more courses than students in public schools, but there were no significant differences in course selection among school types. The breadth and depth of course offerings were consistently lacking in schools in small and rural communities, and problems were also found in low socioeconomic status schools. African American and Hispanic students tended to take fewer mathematics, science, and foreign language courses. Student tracking had a strong and consistent effect on course-taking. Students in non-academic tracks did not take an extensive coursework, or as much advanced coursework, as students in academic tracks. Tracking is clearly detrimental to the selection of higher-level courses. Increased graduation requirements had more effect on basic than on advanced coursework. Implications for educational improvement are discussed.

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