Academic Rigor and the Achievement Gap

The growing college completion gap

BY VANESSA COCA | One of the most vexing issues in education today is the growing disparity in college completion by race/ethnicity and income[i]. For example, 25 percent of White 25- to 29-year-olds had earned a Bachelor’s degree or higher in 1980, compared with only 12 percent of Blacks and 8 percent of Latinos. By 2011, 39 percent of White 25- to 29-year-olds had attained a Bachelor’s degree, whereas only 20 percent of Blacks and 13 percent of Latinos did. This means that from 1980 to 2011, the gap between Blacks and Whites increased from 13 to 19 percentage points, and the gap between Latinos and Whites increased from 17 to 26 percentage points.[ii]

Although a number of factors contribute to the gap in college completion—the rising cost of tuition, differences in family expectations or responsibilities, or differences in pathways to and through college—most education stakeholders believe that a lack of solid academic preparation is a primary source of this disparity. With almost one in three Black or Latino undergraduate students placed in remediation in their first year of college,[iii] a key component of the agenda to improve college preparation for these students includes creating more opportunities for rigorous academic experiences in high school.

How is academic rigor being promoted?

Over the past two decades, states and school districts have implemented a variety of policies aimed at boosting opportunities for rigorous academic experiences in high school—from establishing tougher requirements for high school graduation (e.g., exit exams, curricula standards, coursework requirements) to expanding more opportunities for academically advanced coursework like advanced math or science, dual enrollment courses, Advanced Placement (AP), and International Baccalaureate(IB) courses.

Not surprisingly, these policy efforts—in combination with increases in financial returns to a college education[iv] and students’ rising educational aspirations[v]—have resulted in promising trends in students’ academic experiences across subgroups of students. Today, more students are taking higher-level math and science courses,[vi]  advanced coursework[vii] and at least a moderately challenging curriculum.[viii] In addition, long-term trends in NAEP[ix] scores also show a dramatic narrowing of White/Black and White/Hispanic gaps in mathematics and reading scores at age 17.[x] However, while all boats are rising, the gaps in achievement remain.

Challenges to measuring the effect of academic rigor

As policymakers seek to close the achievement gap by expanding opportunities for traditionally disadvantaged students to take more rigorous coursework, they may be surprised to learn that there is little evidence to prove causal relationships between coursework—as measured by course titles— taken in high school and college outcomes. The truth is that most studies on course-taking encounter two serious methodological problems: 1) selection bias—where other factors such as parental support, student motivation, and access to high schools with additional resources and supports could affect students’ college outcomes rather than coursework; 2) assumption of universal effects—where course-taking benefits students equally regardless of their demographic or academic backgrounds.

More recently, there is a growing body of rigorous, quasi-experimental research that suggests course-taking may not matter for college outcomes. For example, research from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research found that a 1997 Chicago policy, which mandated tougher high school coursework requirements[xi] for all students, had no impact on rates of college enrollment[xii] and persistence[xiii].

Ultimately, attempts to improve opportunities for academic rigor for traditionally disadvantaged students need to move beyond simply prescribing courses.[xiv] Focusing on what is actually going on in the classroom and across students’ high school experiences is a more promising strategy.

What does academic rigor look like on the ground?

In a different research study that examined the academic experiences of high school seniors in Chicago Public Schools, the authors found four key components that characterized whether a student felt that they were being academically challenged in their senior-level courses: (1) the course developed and set high expectations for academic behaviors essential for participation, (2) the course built academic skills necessary for college, (3) the course set high academic standards that built on prior learning, (4) the course required that students put forth considerable effort to succeed. [xv] The authors found that even courses not labeled as “academically advanced” (i.e. AP and IB) could offer academically challenging experiences to students, although few did.

Exposing students to academically challenging experiences in high school not only arms students with the content knowledge, core academic skills, and academic behaviors to do well in their college courses, but it seems also to develop students’ academic identities. In a related longitudinal study of IB students in neighborhood high schools in Chicago, the authors found that these students—most of whom were first-generation college goers—felt high levels of academic challenge in high school and also reported feeling academically prepared once in college. In turn, these students reported a strong sense of belonging at their colleges.[xvi]  Perhaps if more traditionally disadvantaged students saw themselves as active and valued participants in the world of learning, they might feel more compelled to attend and stay in college.[xvii]

In many ways, policy efforts that focus on changing course-taking patterns or adopting specific curricula seem to be only scratching the surface in terms of substantially changing the actual academic experiences of traditionally disadvantaged students. Meaningful access to academic rigor requires exposure to essential academic knowledge, core academic skills, academic attitudes and behaviors that build on each other over a sustained period of time.[xviii] This is admittedly a tall order. On the other hand, if we are serious about closing the growing college completion gap, should we really expect less?

Vanessa Coca is a Research Fellow at the Research Alliance for NYC Schools


[1] Bailey, M. J., & Dynarski, S. M. (2011). Gains and gaps: Changing inequality in US college entry and completion (No. w17633). National Bureau of Economic Research.

[1] Figure 48-2

[1] Table 3

[1] Carnevale, A.P., Rose, S.J. & Cheah, B. (2011) The College Payoff: Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings.  Center on Education and the Workforce  at Georgetown University.

[1] (Figure 35-1 & 35-2)






[1]The 1997 Chicago Public Schools policy specified four years of specific English courses (survey literature, American literature, European literature, world literature), three years of specific math courses (algebra, geometry, advanced algebra), three years of science (biology, earth /space or environmental science, chemistry or physics), and three years of social science (world studies, U.S. history, elective). This research focused on the impact of taking Algebra I and English I in the ninth grade or whether students took three laboratory science courses (earth or environmental science, biology or life science, chemistry, physics, advanced science) within their first four years of high school.



[1] The major caveat to this point depends on the extent to which coursework is used in admission criteria to postsecondary institutions.



[1] See Mandy Savitz-Romer and Suzanne Bouffard’s book, Ready, willing, and able: A developmental approach to college access and success, for an extended discussion development of college identities.

[1] See David Conley’s article “Redefining College Readiness” for a practical descriptions of types of knowledge, skills, and behaviors needed for ‘college readiness.’

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