Linked learning high school programs hold promise in boosting student engagement and lead to “moderately greater” success in school, but translate to little improvement on standardized tests and struggle to retain special needs and English learner students, according to a new independent evaluation of nine such programs in California.
The evaluation, released this week by research group SRI International, is part of a five-year study of districts participating in the Linked Learning District Initiative, funded by the James Irvine Foundation.*
Linked learning pathways integrate academics throughout a career-related theme, such as business or health care. Students in the programs typically remain together as a cohort throughout the length of the program and participate in work-based learning opportunities, such as internships, throughout their academic career.
The latest evaluation reiterates findings of previous SRI reviews that found that students who are involved in the programs report feeling more positive and engaged in school, felt challenged in their studies and could see the relevance in what they were learning to the real world. Students also were more likely to remain in their district through the 12th grade and earned more credits than students in traditional high school programs, the evaluation found.
And while students in the pathway programs scored higher than their peers on the English portion of the high school exit exam, they did not do better than other students on the math portion or on other standardized tests. The results did find, however, that pathway students from underserved groups, such as English learners, blacks and Latinos, performed better than similar groups in traditional high school programs.
“Test scores are hard to affect: even if students are more engaged and complete more credits, if pathways do not deliver more rigorous instruction and better student supports than traditional high schools, pathway students are not going to perform better on standardized tests,” the evaluation said.
The review this year also provided a closer look at student retention in the pathways, showing that 80 percent of students who start in a pathway remain until graduation. However, special education students, English learners and underachieving students are more likely to leave the programs, and they are underrepresented in the programs in some districts.
“The lower district retention rates for these students are likely to be due, in part, to higher household mobility among these groups, a factor that educators cannot control,” the report said.
- Students in pathway programs were 7.9 percent more likely to be on track to complete the courses required for university admission, called a-g, by the end of 10th grade than their peers in traditional high school. However, the results were not statistically significant between the two groups in grades 9 and 11.
- Students who participate in pathways are no more likely than other students to take Algebra II by the end of their junior year – a gateway course that can lead to more rigorous mathematics courses and provides an indicator of college-readiness.
- The analysis did not find any patterns of pathways enrollment based on ethnicity, English learner status or other factors, but did find that girls enrolled in health career pathways at disproportionately high rates, and enrolled in engineering pathways in low rates.
The full analysis and additional information can be found here.
The nine districts evaluated in the study are Antioch, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Montebello, Oakland, Pasadena, Porterville, Sacramento City, and West Contra Costa.
*The James Irvine Foundation also provides funding to EdSource but has no say in editorial decisions.