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Lesson 9.2

Student Success:
How Well is My Kid Doing?

Which classes matter most in high school? Hint: a,b,c,d,e,f,g

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Students and parents look to teachers for feedback. Teachers report progress, or the lack of it, through red marks, letter grades, report cards and parent-teacher conferences. School systems provide an extra degree of objectivity through standardized tests.

We depend on schools, in other words, to regularly tell us whether our kids are on track and learning what they need to know to succeed in life.

Academic Milestones

In elementary and middle school, there are a few academic milestones of particular importance. By the end of 1st grade, kids need to know the alphabet, the numbers, and some basic classroom norms. By 3rd grade, it is essential for students to be able to read, because schoolwork shifts from "learning to read" to "reading to learn." Similarly, by about 4th grade math advances beyond basic numeracy, becoming a way to solve problems and answer questions.

When students don't achieve these milestones on schedule, what should happen? Should they advance to the next grade anyway (an approach known as "social promotion") or is it better to repeat a grade? Each California school district is required to have a written policy on pupil promotion and retention (PPR). There are no easy answers, but the general guidance of the National Association of School Psychologists is to take a "promotion plus" approach. That is, move the student to the next grade level and invest in providing the specific support the student needs to get on track.

Tracking and "Differentiation"

Students of the same age don't necessarily have the same academic skills. In order to challenge students at an appropriate level, teachers try to create ways of differentiating instruction within the same classroom. If the differences are too great to address them while keeping the students all together, they might create groups, spending extra time with the students that need extra help.

As students advance, they tend to separate. By middle school, some students are ready for algebra and Shakespeare, while others need more basic support. The differing sets of courses that students take, particularly in English and mathematics, are sometimes formalized as "tracks." These tracks can become destiny. Once a student is enrolled in a course on a less-rigorous track, it is extremely difficult to jump to a higher one.

Success in High School

Girls are more likely than boys to graduate from high school.

Over the long term, students have been graduating from high school at a rising rate throughout America, including in California. This is good news though tempered by big gaps. White and Asian students are far more likely to graduate than Black and Latino students, and girls are more likely to graduate than boys.


Graduation is important, but not all transcripts are of equal rigor. Not all grades are of equal value, either. In 2018 the Alliance for Excellent Education examined long-term data to look for evidence of the stability of meaning of a letter grade in high school courses. They found that grade inflation is real, and unequal. According to study author Seth Gershenson, grade inflation has had an unequal pattern: "it’s gotten easier to get a good grade in more affluent schools, but not in less affluent ones."

In order for high school students in California to qualify for admission to the state's four-year public universities, they must satisfactorily complete a set of courses known as the a-g requirements, as discussed in Lesson 6.2. More good news: students have been taking and passing these courses at rising rates.

High-Stakes Tests

Annual standardized tests such as California's CAASPP test are sometimes called "high-stakes" tests, but this is a misnomer. These tests are important to school leaders, certainly, but students actually have little stake in them. The truly high-stakes tests for students are the ones that determine whether and where they might be able to go to college:

The ACT / SAT. In high school, most students with their sights set on college take either the ACT test or the SAT test. These tests really matter. Colleges use the scores on these tests as a vital sorting tool. Imagine yourself as an admission officer facing piles of transcripts from thousands of students. Some high schools are more rigorous than others, so it can be difficult for admissions officers to evaluate the true value of a student's grades. The ACT and SAT exams are important because the tests are the same for everyone. Both exams charge a fee, but both the College Board and ACT waive the fee for students in poverty, with proper documentation.

AP Tests. Advanced Placement tests are subject-specific exams on a variety of subjects. Scores on these tests build a college applicant’s resume. The Advanced Placement program, run by The College Board, offers college-level curriculum and examinations to high school students. Schools submit their curricula and apply for courses to get the AP designation. The program includes end-of-course exams. Many American colleges grant placement and course credit to students who score high enough on AP tests.

Extensively updated September 2017
Updated March 2018
Updated March 2019


Graduating from high school is a major life milestone. About 80% of California students graduate, but there are significant variations by race and income. Is there also a difference in the High School graduation rates of boys and girls?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jenny Greene August 12, 2020 at 7:05 am
With some schools dropping the requirement for the SAT, it'll be interesting to see if that changes the whole thrust of how colleges in general sort through their applicants.
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh December 4, 2019 at 9:26 pm
Standardized tests can be dreadful. Like many of my peers, I took Kaplan to learn how to raise my grades on the SAT.

So I needed to learn how to take the SAT. That cost money and time. What a waste of resources.

I graduated from Wellesley magna cum laude. The SAT didn’t measure my ability or my intelligence, only my aptitude at taking the SAT.
user avatar
Caryn-C September 13, 2017 at 8:55 am
I will never forget a student in one of the classes at a UC I TA'd during graduate school. Her writing was so poor I thought, how did you make it through high school? And yet, there she was, barely understandable and get this...angry. Angry that I wouldn't give poor writing better grades.

AP tests are a whole other can of worms. I think there is tremendous variability in the quality of AP classes. I've seen some that are brutal, homework-intensive burdens and others that are incredibly taught by teachers passionate about their subjects. Personally, I don't think that any course offered a ninth grader (AP Human Geography is offered here in 9th) should qualify for college credit. But, no one is asking me!

And no matter how many times I read about how university admissions depts. want your well-rounded learner, if they don't have a strong standardized test score, buena suerte.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar March 7, 2017 at 8:25 am
How well are California students doing on Advanced Placement tests? In 2016, they were 5th in the nation.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 27, 2016 at 2:32 pm
California graduation rates are improving but still a bit behind the national average. The rates have risen for 6 years in a row, with the largest increase by English language learners and migrant students. The rate for the California class of 2015 was 82.3
The national average is 83.2 percent. Read this article from EdSource for more detail:
user avatar
Veli Waller April 18, 2015 at 8:29 pm
Sadly, many students graduate from high school as top students and do not test as "college ready". The number of students requiring remedial courses in post-secondary education is a serious problem.
user avatar
mvpollack66 September 7, 2015 at 10:04 pm
So, true Veli....between the time I earned my Bachelor's in 1989 and then started on my credential in 1991, my university increased the number of sub-100 level English and Math classes exponentially.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale March 18, 2019 at 3:26 pm
Veli's observation goes precisely to the heart of the matter: One school's A student is another's B student or worse. An AP course taught at one school might be equivalent to a college level course, but not at another. In my opinion, AP courses are good for challenging students with a rigorous curriculum and for introducing news ways of thinking, but at least in history (my field), they bear no resemblance whatsoever to how history is taught at the university level (where I taught). My children got tired of the rants, but were comforted to know that primary material can be mined for information to support contradictory positions -- no matter what the AP Euro teacher said!
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