High school students were making progress in 2 key areas before COVID struck

It's unclear whether COVID's extensive disruptions will upend the upward trajectory in credits and GPAs.
By: | March 16, 2022

On the eve of COVID, high school students were making progress in two high-priority areas: they were earning more credits and taking more rigorous STEM courses.

But despite a steady rise in GPAs, 12th-graders’ math and science scores have declined or stayed flat for a full decade, according to Wednesday’s release of Nation’s Report Card data for the graduating class of 2019. And it remains to be seen if COVID’s extensive disruptions, including the uneven shift to virtual learning, will upend this upward trajectory.

One batch of fall 2021 test results showed that historically marginalized students and students in high-poverty schools continue to suffer the deepest learning loss. Other research revealed that students who were below grade level fell even father behind during the pandemic, regardless of whether they learned remotely or in-person.

“We must build on the progress in these results— including the fact that high school students are graduating with more courses in STEM subjects—as schools and districts help students recover from the pandemic,” said Gov. Beverly Perdue, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, which produces the report card.

Though high school graduates in various subgroups all made progress, the latest 2019 NAEP High School Transcript Study shows racial disparities have also persisted alongside the progress.

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The average high school graduate’s GPA rose to an all-time high of 3.11 in 2019, from 3.0 in 2009 and 2.68 in 1990. In 2019, Asian/Pacific Islanders earned the highest average GPA (3.39), followed by white graduates (3.23), Hispanic graduates (2.95), and Black graduates (2.83). Additionally, female graduates averaged a 3.23 GPA, compared to 3.0 for males.

Here are the other key findings from the report:

  • The class of 2019 took more science, technology, engineering, and math courses and participated in more rigorous coursework overall compared to graduating classes since 1990.
  • Grade 12 mathematics and science NAEP scores have declined or stayed steady over the last decade.
  • The class of 2019 earned an average of 28.1 credits, which is 0.9 credits more than 2009 and 4.5 credits more than in 1990.
  • Graduates earned 20.8 credits in academic courses in 2019, compared to 16.7 credits in 1990.
  • More than 95% of high school graduates earned STEM credits in 2019, a 20-percentage point increase compared to 1990. Math credits increased from one to 4.2 credits; life and physical science credits rose from 0.9 to 3.7 credits.

To track rigor, the report card analyzed the number of students taking a standard, mid-level or rigorous curriculum. A record number of graduates across all racial and ethnic groups completed a mid-level curriculum.

But despite a recent focus on enhancing career and technical education across K-12 education, the number of graduates who earned CTE credits declined to 85% in 2019 from 92% in 1990.

“This was one of the most significant drops in course taking,” Perdue said. “Students must have opportunities to explore interests in career and technical areas while they are still in high school. Additionally, we must determine other ways that districts and schools can prepare students to meet workplace demand for these skills.”