Road to college paved with top grades

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The news that only 6.5 percent of Chicago Public Schools graduates earned a college degree by their mid-20s grabbed front-page headlines for the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which tracked college participation rates for the classes of 2002 and 2003 using data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

The report is the first to follow graduates of a major urban school system to find out how many go to college, where they enroll and how many graduate.

Beyond the dismal college graduation rate, the Consortium found that:

* Grades are key. Top grades were more likely to lead to college enrollment than high ACT scores. Graduates with lower grades but high ACT scores had a 68 percent chance of enrolling in college, while graduates with lower scores but top grades had an 82 percent chance. The gap was most significant among students who enrolled in the most selective colleges: 36 percent vs. 53 percent, respectively.

* No grade inflation. Researchers found little or no evidence of what they termed the “urban folktale,” of students in inner-city schools who earn straight A’s but find themselves under-prepared in college. Only 21 percent of graduates earned a GPA higher than 3.0 in their core subjects. The achievement gap between African-Americans and Latinos vs. white and Asian graduates was striking: 14 percent of African-American and 20 percent of Latino graduates earned a GPA higher than 3.0, compared to 36 percent of whites and 50 percent of Asians.

* Not enough advanced coursework. Nearly half of graduates—46 percent—had taken only the standard high school curriculum and did not enroll in any honors or Advanced Placement courses. Of those who did, 25 percent took three or fewer honors courses and only 9 percent were enrolled in what researchers considered a rigorous college-oriented curriculum with regular enrollment in honors, AP or International Baccalaureate classes.

The latest data from CPS shows that African American and Hispanic students are underrepresented in AP and honors classes. In 2005, only 25 percent of black students and 30 percent of Hispanic students were enrolled in at least one AP or honors course, compared to 49 percent of whites and 61 percent of Asians. (Neighborhood high schools in minority neighborhoods are likely to have fewer AP courses.)

* Low ACT scores. Less than a third of Latino and African-American graduates scored an 18 or higher on the ACT; an 18 is generally considered the benchmark score showing readiness for college-level work.

* Least competitive colleges. Less than 10 percent of African-American and Latino graduates had enough rigorous preparation in high school to gain admission to the country’s most selective four-year colleges and universities. Overall, 56 percent of graduates attended either two-year or non-selective four-year colleges. Latinos were most likely to do so; 64 percent of Latino girls and 69 percent of Latino boys attended a two-year or non-selective institution.

The Consortium plans to conduct related research including a more detailed study of the impact of AP and other challenging coursework on college performance, and how social and academic support in high schools affect students’ success in college.

Download a PDF of the report: “From High School to the Future”