Data & Research RESEARCH
The Empirical Curriculum: Changes in Postsecondary Course Taking, 1972 - 2000

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downloadable files PDF (Appendix: Taxonomy of Postsecondary Courses, 2003)

Executive Summary

The Empirical Curriculum is a descriptive account of the major features of change in student course-taking in postsecondary contexts between 1972 and 2000, with an emphasis on the period 1992-2000. To provide this account, it draws on three grade-cohort longitudinal studies that were designed and carried out by the National Center for Education Statistics, and within those studies, high school and (principally) college transcript records:

  • The National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972 (NLS-72), which began with a national sample of 22,500 12th graders in U.S. high schools in the spring of 1972 and followed them to 1986. The postsecondary transcripts for 12,600 members of this cohort were gathered in 1984.
  • The High School and Beyond/Sophomore cohort (HS&B/So), which began with a national sample of 30,000 10th graders in U.S. high schools in 1980, and followed sub-groups of this cohort to 1992. The postsecondary transcripts for 8,400 members of this cohort were gathered in 1993.
  • The National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88/2000), which began with a national sample of 25,000 8th graders in U.S. schools in 1988, and followed sub-groups of this cohort to 2000. The postsecondary transcripts for 8,900 members of this cohort were gathered in 2000.

To provide consistency in comparing the experience of students in the three cohorts, the populations used for the data tables in The Empirical Curriculum are confined to those students who were in the 12th grade in the year they were scheduled to graduate from high school. This parameter was determined by the earliest of the grade cohorts, the NLS-72, which began in the 12th grade. Hence, the three cohorts are referred to throughout the document as

  • High School Class of 1972,
  • High School Class of 1982, and
  • High School Class of 1992.

By confining the universe to 12th graders, high school dropouts who had not returned to be with their scheduled class and early graduates are excluded from this account of the postsecondary histories of the classes of 1982 and 1992.

Major Topics and Illustrative Observations

Constructing a College Course Map (CCM) Taxonomy of Courses From Postsecondary Transcripts

  • In the modification of the 1981 Classification of Instructional Programs for three national transcript samples, the number of course categories has risen from 1,037 for the period 1972-1984 to 1,178 for the period 1992-2000.
  • Some of the new codes for the period 1992-2000 were the result of disaggregating titles under previously single, generalized categories such as Linguistics (now four separate codes). Other codes represent new topics for which course-taking occurred in significant volume during the 1990s--for example, history courses in The Holocaust, Vietnam, and World War II.
  • Three major curricular themes are observable in the new codes for the period 1992-2000: Internationalism, Environment, and Information Systems/Information Technology.
  • Two delivery themes are also evident in the list of new codes for the period 1992-2000, cooperative education/internships and independent study/undergraduate research, indicating an increase in volume of student participation in these forms of learning.

The Empirical Core Curriculum

  • Taking all 12th graders in the high school classes of 1972, 1982, and 1992 who earned bachelor's degrees, the 30 course categories producing the highest percentage of their earned credits accounted for roughly one-third of all credits earned (table 2.1).
  • Twenty-one of the 30 course categories accounting for the highest percentage of credits earned by bachelor's degree recipients from the high school classes of 1972, 1982, and 1992 were the same in all three grade cohorts (table 2.1 and figure 2.1).
  • Fourteen of the 30 course categories accounting for the highest percentage of credits earned by bachelor's degree recipients from the high school classes of 1982 and 1992 were common to all four of the major race/ethnicity groups in both cohorts, and another 8 course categories were common to three of the four race/ethnicity groups (table 2.3).
  • Sixteen of the 30 course categories accounting for the highest percentage of credits earned by bachelor's degree recipients from the high school classes of 1982 and 1992 were held in common by men and women in both cohorts (tables 2.4 and 2.5).
  • Only 12 of the 30 course categories accounting for the highest percentage of credits earned by bachelor's degree recipients from the high school class of 1992 were held in common by three levels of selectivity of the institution awarding the bachelor's degree (table 2.7). This framework of analysis yields a higher degree of differentiation in the empirical core curriculum than those frameworks that draw on demographic constructs.

Student Course Work, by Participation Rates for All Those Who Earned More Than 10 Credits and Those Who Earned Bachelor's Degrees

  • When asking what percentage of 12th graders in the high school classes of 1972, 1982, and 1992 subsequently earned any credits in over 600 discrete course categories within 8.5 years of their modal high school graduation date, there are very few course categories with unambiguous trends across the three cohorts (table 3.1).
  • Rising percentages in course participation across the three grade cohorts can be observed in International Management, Management Information Systems, Public Speaking, Aerobics/Jogging/Body-Building, and Ethics, for example.
  • Declining percentages in participation from the 1972-1980 to the 1982-1990 period, followed by rising percentages for the 1992-2000 period, can be observed in 8 of the course codes for Education, reflecting the change in the proportion of undergraduates majoring in Education in the three grade cohorts (table 3.1 and table 2.2).
  • Rising percentages in participation from the 1972-1980 to the 1982-1990 period, followed by falling percentages for the 1992-2000 period can be observed in 11 of the codes in Business Administration, reflecting the change in the proportion of undergraduates majoring in business fields (tables 3.1 and 2.2).
  • The 10 course categories with the highest average number of credits earned by 1992 12th graders who subsequently earned more than 10 postsecondary credits are Student Teaching (9.9 credits); Advanced Accounting, which includes auditing and cost accounting (8.3 credits); Music Performance (7.4 credits); introductory and intermediate level Spanish (7.3 credits); Organic Chemistry (6.9 credits); introductory and intermediate level French (6.8 credits); Calculus (6.6 credits); General Physics (6.6 credits); General Chemistry (6.5 credits); and Theater: Acting, Directing (6.3 credits) (table 3.2). These cases reflect either categories in which students take courses more than once (in the performing arts), categories in which courses are presented in multi-term form (in the sciences, mathematics, and foreign languages), or categories that combine topics and/or levels of a subject (Advanced Accounting and lower level foreign languages).
  • The 10 course categories enrolling the highest percentage of 1992 12th graders in their first calendar year of postsecondary education are English Composition (67.1 percent), General Psychology (39.7 percent), College Algebra (19.6 percent), Introduction to Sociology (18.4 percent), U.S. History Surveys (17.5 percent), General Biology (17.2 percent), Physical Education Activities (16.1 percent), General Chemistry (15.2 percent), Freshman Orientations (14.9 percent), and Remedial English/Writing (14.2 percent) (table 3.3). These reflect student choices within the core distribution requirements at many institutions of higher education.
  • Higher percentages of 1992 12th graders who started in community colleges enrolled in pre-collegiate mathematics courses during their first calendar year of attendance than was the case for all postsecondary students in the cohort. This contrast, along with comparative enrollment rates in Remedial English/Writing and Remedial Reading, confirms the dominant role of community colleges in remediation for entering postsecondary students (table 3.3).
  • When 108 aggregates of the 1,178 course categories in the 2003 taxonomy are constructed, and the participation rates of 1982 and 1992 12th graders who subsequently earned more than 10 postsecondary credits are compared, one finds (1) significant increases in participation rates in ethnic and culture studies, generalized introductions to science, women's studies, Spanish language, crime studies and services, ethics, environment and natural resources, and computer applications; and (2) major decreases in participation in all business fields, computer programming, and remedial English/writing (table 3.4).
  • When 108 aggregates of the 1,178 course categories in the 2003 taxonomy are constructed and the postsecondary course-taking of men and women in the high school class of 1992 are compared, clear cases of gender segmentation can be observed in engineering and engineering technologies, education, family/child studies and services, biology service courses, and nutrition, for example (table 3.5).
  • When 108 aggregates of the 1,178 course categories in the 2003 taxonomy are constructed and postsecondary course-taking for 12th graders of the high school class of 1992 is compared across four major race/ethnicity groupings, there are no statistically significant differences in participation rates in such widely disparate aggregates as nutrition, office occupations, graphics and design, and art history, for example (table 3.6).

Undergraduate Curriculum by Occupation: The Case of School Teachers From the High School Class of 1992

  • Of the 1992 12th graders who became school teachers by 1999, 51 percent majored in education; 18 percent majored in another field with a minor in education; and 15 percent majored in another field and prepared for school teaching after earning their bachelor's degree. In 1999, 15 percent were teaching without any education program background (table 4.1).
  • In considering the empirical core curriculum of 1992 12th graders who became school teachers, both Theology and Bible Study are on the list of the top 30 courses, indicating that teachers in religious education are included. Likewise, Music Performance and Basic Musicianship courses are included, indicating that music teachers working in multiple settings are included (table 4.2).
  • In considering the undergraduate curriculum of school teachers in terms of the number of credits earned in different course clusters: 16 percent earned 11 or more credits in foreign languages; 41 percent earned 11 or more credits in science, and 42 percent did not earn any credits in computer-related courses (table 4.3).
  • The post-baccalaureate course work of 1992 12th graders who became school teachers and earned credits after the bachelor's degree consists exclusively of education courses, for example, Education Psychology, Curriculum/Curriculum Theory, and Reading Education (table 4.4).

 
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Last Modified: 06/02/2004