Focusing on Academic Intensity and the Road to College Success

Eight years ago, Clifford Adelman, then a senior researcher with the U.S. Department of Education, published a striking finding—high school students' "academic resources" (a combination of high school curriculum, score on an SAT-like test, and class rank) have a greater impact on completing a bachelor's degree than socioeconomic status. His study, Answers in the Tool Box, made news and a couple of its key findings—such as the importance of taking challenging academic courses and, in particular, taking a math class beyond Algebra II—even seeped into popular culture.

Last year, Adelman published The Toolbox Revisited, using more recent data, and reconfirmed the importance of academic resources for completing (not just entering) college. Here's how he summed up the key points: "Two national longitudinal studies, a decade apart, have told similar stories. When the second story reinforces the first—and sheds even more light—something has to be right, and it behooves us to pay attention. Both of them provide support for current efforts to improve the quality of high school curricula and the participation in those curricula of ever larger proportions of students."

Pay attention we will—starting with a closer look at the impact of students' socioeconomic status versus their academic resources. After breaking both variables into quintiles and doing some sophisticated analyses, Adelman determined that for each step up in socioeconomic status, the probability of earning a bachelor's degree goes up by about seven percent—but for each step up in academic resources, the probability of earning a bachelor's degree goes up by about 15 percent.

As in the previous study, Adelman dug a little further. Unpacking the academic resources data, he found that of the three factors (high school curriculum, score on an SAT-like test, and class rank), the intensity and quality of the high school curriculum is the most important. More specifically, curriculum reflects 42 percent of the academic resources students bring to higher education; score on an SAT-like test reflects 25 percent; and class rank/GPA reflects 33 percent.

It's one thing to know that an academically intense curriculum is important—it's another to see what it looks like. By studying students' high school transcripts, Adelman devised an intensity scale with 31 levels. Those at the top level had earned at least the following:

• 3.75 or more Carnegie units of English

• 3.75 or more Carnegie units of mathematics

• highest mathematics of calculus, precalculus, or trigonometry

• 2.5 or more Carnegie units of science or more than 2.0 Carnegie units of core laboratory science (biology, chemistry, and physics)

• more than 2.0 Carnegie Units of foreign languages

• more than 2.0 Carnegie Units of history and social studies

• 1.0 or more Carnegie Units of computer science

• more than one Advanced Placement course

In addition, they had no remedial English or math courses. This is a high-powered transcript—and it paid off: 95 percent of the students who reached this top level on the intensity scale earned a bachelor's degree within eight years of high school graduation.

Providing students the opportunity to take and succeed in such courses is obviously critical. So how do we do it? That's the million-dollar question. Many schools, generally in poor areas, don't even offer the most advanced courses—often because they can't find an adequate supply of math and science teachers. But even where they do, they still face the enormous challenge of helping more students complete them. Not all kids have the necessary background knowledge, study skills, or preparation.

AVID, a program founded by an English teacher nearly 30 years ago, may help. The following pages share the founder's story. They also detail AVID's simple, yet effective structure by featuring one high school's experience with AVID.


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American Educator, Fall 2007