Promoting Rigorous Courses for all Students

To offer recommendations that promote and facilitate rigorous courses for all students in middle and high schools.

Despite wide disagreements about the role of schools and even the aims of education in our society, there is a growing consensus across a broad political and ideological spectrum that more students than ever before must graduate from high school prepared to meet high standards for postsecondary education or the workforce. The past few years have seen a movement among states and districts to eliminate barriers to college access and to increase student preparation and college attendance.

Yet according to a 2009 ACT survey, a large majority of U.S. high school graduates still cannot adequately perform some essential postsecondary or career-ready level tasks in English, writing, reading, mathematics, and science.

Strengthening the rigor of courses taken in middle and high schools can be an effective strategy to raise student achievement levels, and ensure postsecondary and work readiness for more students. Raising expectations for all students to enroll in rigorous courses, including AP, dual-credit courses, or the International Baccalaureate, is crucial, particularly for students who have historically been under-represented in those courses. In too many schools, high-level courses are open to only a select group of high-achieving students, thus perpetuating historical inequalities in academic outcomes.

Consider the following facts: by the end of high school, Black and Latino students’ reading and mathematics skills are roughly the same as those of White students in the eighth grade. Black students are three times more likely than White students to be placed in special education programs and are half as likely to be in gifted programs in elementary and secondary schools.

Yet simply removing the barriers that have been erected against access to high-level courses in and of itself is not sufficient to improve readiness and performance. Students from low-income and minority backgrounds too often have academic and social deficits and need a set of academic and social support mechanisms to help them navigate the challenges of rigorous courses and gain access to the same opportunities afforded by their more privileged peers.

A growing body of work has unveiled promising policies and practices that may enable equity and excellence to coexist. School leaders and policymakers who are committed to preparing all middle and high school students to achieve at higher levels will find insights in the recommendations.

Guiding Principles

  • In a February 2009 position statement on preparing all students for postsecondary success, NASSP expressed support for challenging graduation requirements and provided recommendations for federal, state, and local policymakers to help schools ensure that all students meet those high standards.
  • In a 2007 position statement on the achievement gap, NASSP affirmed its commitment to closing the achievement gap and offered recommendations to help policymakers and school leaders address it.
  • NASSP has identified a number of high-achieving middle and high schools that are serving large numbers of low-income students in a program called Breakthrough Schools. Access to rigorous coursework for all is a key feature of those schools, and they offer valuable lessons on how they raised expectations and supported their students in the process.
  • The NASSP framework for middle and high school reform, Breaking Ranks, promotes open access to rigorous courses for all and an end to low-level courses as a key recommendation for whole school improvement.
  • NASSP has been a long-time supporter of policies that seek to promote equity and excellence, including the work of Pathways to College Network, the Data Quality Campaign, Adolescent Literacy, National Standards and Assessments, the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, and the National High School Alliance.


Federal Policymakers

  • Provide additional funding for the Advanced Placement Incentive Grants Program, which is aimed at increasing the participation of low-income students in both pre-AP and AP courses and tests.
  • Fund a significant literacy initiative that supports students from early childhood through high school.
  • Create a separate secondary school funding stream to improve student achievement at the middle and high school levels with an emphasis on rigorous courses and college preparation.
  • Expand support of the Federal TRIO Programs, which serve and assist low-income, first-generation college students and students with disabilities as they progress from middle school to post-baccalaureate programs.

State Leaders

  • Expand statewide incentives designed to increase the number of minority and low-income students taking pre-college exams, such as AP, SAT, or ACT.
  • Work with groups such as the Chief State School Officers, the National Governors Association, the College Board, and ACT to develop and implement a common core of standards in key subject areas.

District Leaders

  • Establish districtwide policies to facilitate access to high-level courses and programs for low-income and minority students.
  • Provide professional development that helps teachers and administrators gain a deeper awareness of the multiple forms of intelligence and prepares teachers in integrated instructional strategies for remediation.
  • Provide professional development that helps teachers distinguish between behaviors and academic ability. Teacher perceptions that lower academic potential is linked to disorderly or passive behavior have to be changed.
  • Use technology to provide online access to and to support success in advanced courses when live courses are not available in schools and districts.
  • Use multiple and diverse assessments that tap individual skills in different areas.
  • Design a coherent and rigorous K–12 reading, writing, and math curriculum that prepares all students for high school graduation.

School Leaders

  • Provide open-enrollment opportunities to participate in advanced courses. Encourage students who do not meet eligibility criteria but are committed to making an effort in the course to enroll.
  • Systematically seek out high-performing low-income and minority students. Some higher-scoring students choose not to enroll in advanced courses. Counselors should contact them and encourage them to enroll.
  • Make timely, frequent assessments a priority so that teachers can identify and address academic problems to help students early on.
  • Personalize the school environment to enable each student to meet rigorous academic standards.
  • Ensure that each student is provided a personal adult advocate to help him or her personalize the educational experience and a pyramid of interventions that provide academic and social support.
  • Involve all students, particularly low income, first-generation college, and underrepresented ethnic minority backgrounds, in precollege program learning experiences that focus on developing college aspirations and preparing students for entry into higher education. Ensure that all teachers are aware of these programs.
  • Implement alternatives to tracking and ability grouping.
  • Help teachers design high-quality work and teach in ways that engage students, cause them to persist, and result in student satisfaction and acquisition of knowledge, critical-thinking, and problem-solving skills.
  • Help teachers use a variety of instructional strategies and settings that identify and accommodate individual learning needs and engage students.
  • Make sure that each student has a personal plan for progress that is reviewed often and ensures that students are engaged in an effort to meet high standards.
  • Adopt the Breaking Ranks change-process sequence (gather and analyze data, explore solutions, assess readiness, create and communicate a plan, implement, and monitor) to ensure successful and sustainable implementation of changes.


ACT. August 2009. Measuring College and Career Readiness. The Class of 2009. Iowa City, IA: Author.

Teachers College. (2005). The academic achievement gap: Facts and figures. Retrieved from

Darity, W., Jr., Castellino, D., Tyson, K., Cobb, C., & McMillen, B. (2001). Increasing opportunity to learn via access to rigorous courses and programs: One strategy for closing the achievement gap for at-risk and ethnic minority students. Raleigh, NC: Division of Accountability, North Carolina State Department of Public Instruction.

Handwerk, P., Tognatta, N., Coley, R., & Gitomer, D. (2008). Access to success: Patterns of Advanced Placement participation in U.S. high schools. (Report number PIC-ACCESS). Washington, DC: ETS.

Tierney, W. G., Bailey, T., Constantine, J., Finkelstein, N., &Hurd, N. F. (2009). Helping students navigate the path to college: What high schools can do: A practice guide (NCEE #2009-4066). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from Institute of Education Sciences Web site:

Mayer, A. P. (2008). Expanding Opportunities for high academic achievement: An International Baccalaureate diploma program in an urban high school. Journal of Advanced Academics, 19(2), 202–235.

National Association of Secondary School Principals. 2004. Breaking ranks II: Strategies for leading high school reform. Reston, VA: Author.

National Association of Secondary School Principals. 2006. Breaking ranks in the middle: Strategies for leading middle level reform. Reston, VA: Author.

National Association of Secondary School Principals. 2009. Breaking ranks: A field guide for leading change. Reston, VA: Author.

Pitre, C., & Pitre, P. (2009, June). Increasing underrepresented high school students’ college transitions and achievements. TRIO educational opportunity programs. NASSP Bulletin. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Savitz-Romer, M., Jager-Hyman, J., & Coles, A. (2009). Removing roadblocks to rigor: Linking academic and social supports to ensure college readiness and success. Washington, DC: Pathways to College Network, Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Duffet, A., & Farkas, S. (2009). Growing pain in the Advanced Placement program: Do tough trade-offs lie ahead? Retrieved from the Thomas B. Fordham Web site: