[Excerpt] The paper began with an examination of the effects of tougher graduation requirements on course taking patterns in high school. High school graduation tests reduced the number of occupational vocational courses taken by students and lowered their likelihood of becoming vocational concentrators. While this finding confirms the hypothesis we specified at the start, the rest of our findings contradict conventional wisdom and our initial hypotheses. Increased course graduation requirements did not decrease vocational course taking. Indeed, students in states with above average Carnegie unit graduation minimums took significantly more vocational education courses than students in states with low minimums. An even more surprising finding was the absence of significant increases in academic course taking in states and school districts with tougher graduation requirements. Instead tougher graduation requirements seem to have increased the number of art, music, health and other personal interest courses taken. We doubt this is what policy makers had in mind when they established these policies. Why do minimum competency exams appear to increase personal interest course taking and not academic course taking? What is it about higher course graduation requirements that results in students taking more personal interest courses and not taking more academic courses? Possibly, what is distinctive about states with high Carnegie unit graduation minimums is that they require extra personal interest courses or extra elective courses not extra academic courses. More research is needed on the impacts of individual components of state course graduation requirements on course taking, test score gains and other outcomes.
The paper then examined the determinants of test score gains between 8th and 12th grade in core academic subjects. Not surprisingly, gains were larger for students who took many academic courses and smaller for those who took introductory vocational courses. Occupational courses and personal interest courses had no effect on test score gains. Course graduation requirements and local option minimum competency exams had no effect (either direct or indirect) on learning during high school. State minimum competency examinations modestly increased learning by non-vocational students but not by vocational concentrators.