The International baccalaureate program at Rockville High School is branching into career and technical education (and, apparently, dance). The authors of a new study argue that academic rigor and career training should go hand in hand. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Two-fifths of high school students graduate prepared neither for traditional college nor for career training, according to a study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Arizona.

College-preparatory programming has expanded dramatically in the past decade, with participation in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate more than tripling. Career-preparatory programs have evolved, as well, and school-to-work “pathways” have replaced tired old vocational programs.

But they are not enough. One-third of high school students complete the modern college-preparatory track, and another one-quarter graduate from career-preparatory programs. The remaining high school population, an estimated 40 percent, do neither.

They are “a virtual underclass of students,” the researchers write, who finish high school with a transcript filled with watered-down general education courses and few prospects for success either in traditional college or in professional training.

The study is titled “The Underserved Third: How Our Educational Structures Populate an Educational Underclass,” and it was written by Regina Deil-Amen at the Center for the Study of Higher Education, University of Arizona, and Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at Hopkins. It actually published last year in the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, but the findings were released to the general public Monday.

Many contemporary jobs require less than a bachelor’s degree; indeed, workers in high-demand fields can earn more money without a bachelor’s degree than counterparts in low-paying fields who have a degree.

But the structure of American high schools is trapped, the authors write, in a culture that “blindly advocate(s) bachelor’s degrees as the only valuable option and the cure for all social ills.”

“Tracking” is a dirty word in public education. Yet, high schools have tracked students since time immemorial, and tracking endures to this day. The approximately one-third of all high school students who participate in credible AP or IB study make up the gifted, college-preparatory track. Another group, about one-quarter of the student population, is steered instead into career preparatory study and occupies a lower track, although no career programs are ever advertized in quite that way.

One group is explicitly prepared for college, the other for the labor market. One population progresses to four-year colleges; the other enrolls in short-duration career training programs at community colleges or career colleges or simply enters the workforce. Both groups are well-served by their education.

And the underclass? That would be the group that dwells below the level of AP and IB study, in lightweight, second-tier courses that might be called “honors” or AP but lack rigor. If you have a child taking AP courses at a high school where few students ever pass AP tests, then your kid is probably a member of the underclass.

The solution, the authors write, is to abolish tracking altogether and to reimagine high school as a tool to prepare all students for both college and careers.

The ideal high school curriculum, they argue, would incorporate the best aspects of both tracks: academic rigor and cutting-edge career preparation. Students might choose one of several academic “pathways” that “include both academically rigorous, college-preparatory requirements and challenging professional and technical knowledge grounded in industry standards,” they write.

Educators around the Washington region would probably say they already do this: many urban/suburban high schools steer students into various career-oriented pathways that also (in theory) immerse students in rigorous college-preparatory academics. They are often called “academies” or “learning communities”.

But as students and parents well know, some of these programs are rigorous, and some are not. Ambitious, college-bound students typically steer clear of any program that sounds the least bit “vocational,” fully expecting that it will lack college-preparatory rigor. And more often than not, this study concludes, they are right.