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Early adolescents' aspirations and academic tracking an exploratory investigation.

Early adolescents make early career decisions in the form of curriculum choices for high school, and these choices can influence future postsecondary education and career paths. This exploratory study examined relationships between school and demographic variables and 522 eighth graders' choices of high school academic tracks. Analysis of variance and chi-square analyses identified statistically significant relationships between curricular choices and various school and demographic variables. The potential for aspiration gaps and implications for school counselor educational and career planning are discussed.


Aspirations have been defined as the "educational and vocational 'dreams'" that students have for their future (Sirin, Diemer, Jackson, Gonsalves, & Howell, 2004, p. 438). Gottfredson (2002) discussed the development of occupational aspirations as a process of circumscription and compromise in which an individual may change his or her original career choices to ones perceived as more appropriate or accessible. Students may perceive one job or career path to be more accessible than another based on factual information they have gathered; however, the values and beliefs of others (e.g., peers, parents, teachers) can shape students' occupational aspirations over time. A student might aspire to become a biologist, but if peers believe the job has no value, parents indicate they cannot pay for college, and teachers do not encourage rigorous coursework, the student might compromise that aspiration for one viewed as more prestigious to peers, more affordable to attain, and more in line with what teachers expect.

Career and academic aspirations are clearly influenced by multiple intrapersonal and systemic factors (Gottfredson, 2002). Some individual factors related to students' aspirations include their level of interpersonal skills, self-reliance, self-control, self-concept, and level of maturity/responsibility (Marjoribanks, 2002; Sirin et al., 2004). Systemic variables related to academic and career aspirations include students' socioeconomic status (SES), the level of families' engagement in their children's education, ethnicity, race, familial aspirations, and the level of parental education (Hill et al., 2004; Marjoribanks; Sirin et al.).

Research has in fact shown significant correlations between race and educational aspirations. In a study of high school seniors conducted by Mahoney and Merritt (1993), White students were much more likely to be enrolled in a college/university preparatory program than Black students. Moreover, a disparity existed between Black seniors who desired to attend college and those who were enrolled in a curriculum track preparing them for college. Also, Bigler, Averhart, and Liben (2003) found that Black children, by the age of 6, have "developed racial schema that incorporate beliefs about occupations and that these schemas affect their perceptions of job and occupational aspirations in significant ways" (p. 578).

In similar ways, gender and SES also can be influential. Both Buchmann and Dalton (2002) and Mau (1995) found females to have higher educational and career aspirations than males, while Trusty and Niles (2004) discovered that women were more likely to complete a bachelor's degree than men. With regard to SES, Valadez (1998) found that the significance of SES in the decision to pursue college outweighs that of both race and gender, with individuals of lower SES having lower aspirations toward college.

According to Marjoribanks (2002, 2004), students' academic and career aspirations significantly contribute to their educational and occupational achievement and academic self-concept. Moreover, career aspirations have a significant positive relationship with students' achievement (Hill et al., 2004), in that higher expectations lead to higher educational and occupational attainment (Trusty & Niles, 2004). In fact, Man and Bikos (2000) found that a student's academic program of study was the strongest contributor to his or her postsecondary aspirations.


Few topics generate as much controversy as academic tracking within American schools. Tracking is the educational practice of categorizing and classifying students by curriculum standards, educational and career aspirations, and/or ability levels. Most often tracks impose guidelines for coursework in English and mathematics, but at times they address sciences, social studies, world languages, and various vocational courses as well. The premise guiding academic tracking is that separating students based on their ability, motivation, and/or past academic achievement, and placing them in classroom settings with peers of similar ability and achievement (advanced/ academic, general, or vocational tracks), will create a more effective learning environment for all students (Callahan, 2005). More than 95% of middle and high schools in North America employ some form of academic tracking (Schweiker-Marra & Pula, 2005).

Curriculum track choices often dictate the types of post-high school options available to students. For example, vocational tracks that prepare students for jobs requiring only a high school diploma and possibly some additional vocational/technical education tend to have less demanding academic course content than advanced tracks. Vocational tracks also allow fewer opportunities for students to broaden their base education with higher-level math and science courses (Callahan, 2005). The end result can be a student who has fewer or lower-income career options than a student in an academic track. Furthermore, students in college/university preparatory tracks typically associate with peers and friends of higher academic ability, which supports both higher academic achievement and aspirations (Buchmann & Dalton, 2002).

Like aspirations, researchers believe variables such as SES may influence the placement of students in tracks as much as academic ability. For example, students who are from low-income families with low grades and average test scores are often directed to the less academically rigorous tracks, but students with similar performance records from middle-income families are often placed in more academically rigorous tracks (Gamoran, 1992). Additionally, Rojewski and Kim (2003) found that high school sophomores who were in the lowest SES quartile were 3 times more likely to be enrolled in a vocational track and they were 4 times more likely to be uncmployed 2 years after high school graduation than students on academic tracks. Rojewski and Kim also found that adolescents in the highest SES quartile were four times more likely to be college-bound than work-bound or unemployed than those in lower SES classifications.

Access and opportunity in advanced coursework are influenced and interactive with educational and occupational aspirations. Students who are placed in or who choose to complete less academically rigorous high school courses of study risk limiting future occupational options. Examining these early career decisions and factors that relate to choices can provide insight for school counselors who seek to promote the academic and career development of all students.


The purpose of this research study was to explore the relationship between high school curriculum choices and demographic and school-related variables. The research question was as follows: Is there a relationship between student high school curriculum track choices and specific school factors such as a student's grade point average (GPA), school behavior, attendance, ability classification, and English as a Second Language (ESL) classification and student factors including race, gender, and SES?



The initial student sample population consisted of 812 eighth-grade students from four middle schools in North Carolina. These purposefully selected middle schools represented a diverse sample, including (a) 76% to 1% minority; (b) 37% to 18% free and reduced lunch; and (c) two rural schools, one urban school, and one suburban school. Of the 812 students registered in eighth grade at the four participating middle schools, schools provided documented curriculum choices for 522 students (the study sample). Either 290 students did not make a curriculum choice in eighth grade, or the school did not record a curriculum choice for the student at the time the data were shared with the researchers. The resulting sample was nearly identical to the total school sample in each descriptive category, except for reduced representation from Black students (from 30% in the total school population to 20% in the study sample). The significance of the missing data, particularly for Black students, is discussed later.

The study sample included a balanced representation of females (n = 263; 51%) and a representative percentage of minority students (20% Black, 4% Latino, and 3% Asian). As an indication of SES, the sample included 27% (n = 139) of students on free or reduced lunch. Additionally, 15% of the students received special education services, 18% were classified as gifted, and 3% received ESL services. One of the high-achieving suburban schools included in the sample skewed the rather large representation of gifted students in this sample.


A change in North Carolina graduation requirements was first implemented in the 2000-2001 academic year and split the standard course of study (SCOS) into four distinct tracks for high school graduation. Eighth-grade students and their parents/guardians choose from one of these tracks. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) indicated that the SCOS system would "spur students to consider more carefully their future opportunities and to plan accordingly" (NCDPI, 1999). Moreover, it was presumed that the SCOS choices would better prepare students for the changing workforce and rigorous requirements of college admittance. The four SCOS options were Occupational, Career, College Tech, and College/University.

The Occupational SCOS is reserved for students with severe mental and/or physical disabilities who received special educational services through an Individualized Education Program. The Career SCOS prepares students for entry-level career choices that require a high school diploma, and admission to community colleges. The College Tech SCOS prepares students for admission to an advanced technical field of study at a community' college or university, though most universities require additional prerequisite courses prior to admittance. Depending on course offerings, students can focus on a wide spectrum of technical careers (e.g., auto mechanics, culinary arts, cosmetology, or graphic art). Finally, the College/University SCOS meets the highest level of academic standards, including a minimum of 2 years of the same world language and 4 years of mathematics. The College/University SCOS fulfills entrance requirements for the University of North Carolina system of universities and colleges.

SCOS choices, demographic information, and school performance data were collected for students in the participating middle schools through school counselors and school databases in the spring of the students' eighth-grade year. Data were sent to the researchers without names or other identifying information beyond the student ID number. Included in this database were categorical variables including race, gender, ESL status (either receiving services or not), SES (qualify for free or reduced lunch or not), ability classification (special education, regular education, or gifted), and students' SCOS choice. Continuous variables reflecting the students' eighth-grade midyear records included GPA, number of absences (attendance), and number of disciplinary referrals (behavior).


Data were analyzed using a 4 x 3 multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) and chi-square analyses in the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences program (SPSS, 2006). Of the 522 students with registered curriculum choices, 60% (n = 312) were listed as College/University, 34% (n = 177) were College Tech, 5% (n = 27) were Career, and 1% (n = 6) were Occupational.

School Factors

A 4 x 3 MANOVA was calculated on the continuous school variables and a statistically significant relationship was found overall [F(9, 1,241) = 11.36, p < .000, with an effect size of 0.06]. Furthermore, a statistically significant relationship was found between SCOS choice and GPA [F(3,512) = 26.85, p < .000]. A Tamhane post-hoe test accounting for unequal variances revealed that students who chose the College/University SCOS and students who chose the Career SCOS had significantly higher GPAs (M = 3.25 and M = 3.12, respectively) than students who chose the College Tech SCOS (M = 2.56). The effect size of 0.14 suggests that a small amount of variance in SCOS choice was associated with GPA.

Additionally, statistically significant relationships were identified between SCOS choice and both student attendance [F(3,512) = 19.04, p < .000] and behavioral referrals IF (3,512) = 4.14, p = .006], with effect sizes of 0.02 and 0.10, respectively. Tamhane post-hoc tests revealed that students who chose the College/University SCOS had significantly fewer absences (M = 4.60) than students who chose the College Tech SCOS (M = 9.67). Additionally, students who chose the College/University SCOS had significantly fewer behavioral referrals (M = 0.46) than students who chose the College Tech SCOS (M = 0.96). No other statistically significant differences were observed.

Chi-square analyses were calculated to examine differences in SCOS choices based on student ability classifications (special education, regular education, or gifted) and ESL status. No significant differences were found in relation to ESL status [[chi square] (3, 522) = 5.20, p = .305], but significant differences were found in relation to ability classification [[chi square] (6, 520) = 120.99, p < .000]. Significantly more students classified as special education chose Career and Occupational SCOS and fewer chose the College/ University SCOS. Additionally, significantly more students classified as gifted chose the College/ University SCOS. Finally, significantly more students in regular education chose the College Tech SCOS and fewer chose the Occupational SCOS. The effect size of 0.11 suggests that a small amount of variance in SCOS can be attributed to a student's ability classification. Table 1 presents the frequency and percentage of students who chose each SCOS for ability classifications, as well as other variables.

Demographic Factors

A chi-square analysis examining SCOS choices by student race did not reveal any significant differences [[chi square] (12, 520) = 15.14, p = .322], but significant differences were found with regard to student gender [[chi square] (3,522) = 11.87, p = .008] and SES [[chi square] (3,521) = 38.86, p < .000]. Results showed that significantly more females chose the College/University SCOS and fewer chose the Career SCOS. Additionally, significantly fewer males chose the College/University SCOS and more chose the Career SCOS. With regard to SES, significantly fewer students who received free or reduced lunch chose the College/ University SCOS and more chose the College Tech and Career SCOS. Finally, significantly more students who did not receive free or reduced lunch chose the College/University SCOS and fewer chose the College Tech and Career SCOS. The very small effect sizes associated with these results (0.01 for gender and 0.04 for SES) suggest that the magnitude of the variance in SCOS choices is limited as related to these variables. Table 1 provides information regarding the number and percentage of students who chose each SCOS.


Over half of the students (approximately 60%) in eighth grade appeared to be making choices that prepare them to pursue a college or university education. Another 34% were preparing for some type of postsecondary education (i.e., business or trade school). If these results are reflective of students throughout North Carolina and the United States and if these students remain in their chosen tracks through graduation, then it is promising that 95% of students will leave high school academically prepared to attend some type of postsecondary school. However, the data illustrate some potential aspiration gaps when examined in relation to school and demographic variables.

School Factors

It seems reasonable that GPA would be related significantly to students' curriculum selections. GPA is a reflection of student achievement in the classroom, and academic competence positively influences educational pursuits. Students who are successful in school are also more likely to be encouraged to pursue an academic as opposed to a vocational SCOS. In fact, Oakes (1992) observed that vocational education is reserved for students who are less able academically. The results in this study reveal a more complex relationship, as no significant differences were found in the GPA of students in the college/ university and career SCOS. It is possible that some students who perform well academically are attracted to more focused, in-depth career study, perhaps paralleling the trend in high schools toward career academies. The low number of students (n = 27) in the career path makes conclusions premature.

The results related to school attendance and behavioral referrals reflect a similar pattern as seen in GPA, with students having better attendance and fewer behavioral referrals generally choosing more academically rigorous tracks. These results support Hill et al. (2004), who found school behavioral problems to be significantly correlated to students' educational aspirations and achievement; students with lower educational aspirations earned lowered grades and had more school behavior problems. Perhaps students who have low aspirations do not value school, and therefore they place low priority on attendance and active involvement. Alternatively, students with attendance or behavioral problems may be discouraged from more rigorous academic tracks by peers, family, or school personnel.

Differences in curriculum choices based on ability labels are consistent with previous research suggesting students who are gifted tend to have higher aspirations than other students (Pyryt, 1993) and students with disabilities are often directed toward vocational options as opposed to college (Janiga & Costenbader, 2002). While these data may be logical and consistent, it is compelling that a student's performance, behavior, attendance, and ability classification as early as elementary and middle school could dictate and potentially limit future career and economic opportunity.

Demographic Factors

The results related to gender--indicating more females than males aspire or are on academic track to attend college--are consistent with research discussed previously (Buchmann & Dalton, 2002; Trusty & Niles, 2004) suggesting women both have higher educational aspirations than men and are more successful in achieving their academic goals. Wahl and Blackhurst (2000), however, noted the opposite to be true in the past. Perhaps initiatives over the past decade to engage girls in math and science and improve their self-concepts are starting to show effects. These data may signify an emerging need to find culturally specific ways of engaging males in postsecondary education pathways.

There is a large body of research connecting SES to educational and career aspirations. According to Burks (1994), background differences, especially SES differences, and effects of track differences on academic achievement are closely intertwined. With fewer students who receive free or reduced lunch choosing the College/University SCOS, results from the current study further support the findings of Rojewski and Kim (2003) discussed previously. While achievement gaps have received significant attention in relation to the No Child Left Behind Act (U.S. Department of Education, 2002), these results document a potential aspiration gap effect. If students of lower SES choose or are encouraged to pursue academic paths that limit future educational and career opportunities, their choices potentially help to maintain a cycle of poverty. As stated by Rojewski and Kim, "SES can influence career decision-making and attainment by opening and closing opportunities, as well as shaping occupational self-concept and decision-making" (p. 106). It may not always or only be students' abilities that guide their curricular choices but rather their limited aspirations that have evolved from their life circumstances.

Unlike previous research, no significant differences emerged in the choices that eighth graders made for their SCOS plan in terms of race or ESL status. While previous research (Fouad & Byars-Winston, 2005) highlighted no significant variance in career aspirations due to race/ethnicity, they did note significant differences in perceptions of career opportunities and barriers. It is important to note that SCOS data were not provided for a significant portion of the Black students from the total school sample. It is unclear if these students did not make a SCOS choice in eighth grade or if the school simply did not have or report the choice to the research team during the study. It is also important to note that these data are not causal, and conclusions should be limited due to small effect sizes. Even so, these data combined with previous research provide clear implications for school counselors in relation to advocacy and educational and career planning.



While most of the debate about tracking has centered on the impact of tracking on student achievement or test scores, its impact on student educational and career aspirations may be equally important. Middle school students encounter an "official" career decision-making point when they confront the task of making academic curriculum choices for their high school years. This initial choice point has considerable implications for students' future educational and career plans. As Rojewski and Kim (2003) stated,
 The influence of discrimination of systemic patterns of educational
 placement and social expectation are also possible explanations of
 diminished postsecondary aspirations and attainment. Given the
 influence of SES, practitioners should reflect on their own
 practice and the role of their profession in either maintaining the
 status quo (e.g., poor students holding limited aspirations) or
 challenging pervasive beliefs and practices, providing early and
 sustained interventions designed to effect meaningful change in the
 lives of young people. (p. 106)

School practices such as academic tracking clearly seem to discourage students' academic and career aspirations (Smith-Maddox & Wheelock, 1995). Even in schools with limited or no tracking, capable students do not always choose advanced curricula due to institutional barriers such as uneven dissemination of information or hidden prerequisites, and they often find safety and identity in lower-level classes that have more representation from their peer group (Yonezawa, Wells, & Serna, 2002).

School counselors should consider advocating against academic tracking and any current educational policy that can limit future education and career opportunities. Supporting this need, the American School Counselor Association (2005) recommends that school counselors advocate for all students and serve as agents for systemic change in reducing institutionalized barriers impeding students' academic, career, and personal/social development and achievement. As such, school counselors might consider becoming involved on committees that create policies related to curriculum choices. They also could disaggregate school data to identify trends related to curriculum tracks among students in their own buildings, and then collaborate with other school personnel to address any problematic trends or needs that become apparent from the data.

Educational and Career Planning

For many reasons, students often enroll in courses that do not meet postsecondary school admissions requirements and/or provide them with the necessary skills and training for their vocational aspirations (Education Trust, 2003). Most middle and high school students express both academic and career aspirations that require postsecondary education but they often do not enroll in academic tracks that will prepare them for this outcome (Feller, 2003; Wimberly & Noeth, 2005). Often, this divergence is related to poor educational planning, in which choices made by students and their parents/guardians do not include sufficient mathematics, science, world language, and technical courses. In fact, Mau (1995) found that students tend to consult with their peers more often than educational professionals regarding their educational plans. Peterson, Long, and Billups (1999) suggested that students lack fundamental competencies to formulate clear and appropriate career aspirations. Thus, students need guidance and advising to support their academic and career planning.

Developmentally Appropriate Services for Students

Developmentally appropriate career indecision (Akos, Konold, & Niles, 2004) reflects the fact that while early adolescents are appropriately undecided about careers, they nevertheless should be engaged in the career exploration process by developing a beginning understanding of how their crystallizing identity relates to future career options (Super, 1984). Middle school students who are undecided, and not engaged systematically in the career development process, are at risk for encountering career development tasks for which they are not prepared (e.g., making an appropriate curriculum choice, identifying appropriate postsecondary plans, developing employability skills).

Schools need to support both students and their parents/guardians in educational planning and career development. Peterson et al. (1999) indicated that students need two essential competencies to make appropriate educational planning decisions. The first area of competency relates to self-awareness and self-knowledge; the students need to "possess an accurate estimate of their interests, abilities, values, and talents combined with a vision of their future with accompanying aspirations that will enable them to realize their full potential as productive citizens in a global economy" (Paterson et al., p. 35). Additionally, students and their parents/guardians need an understanding of school policy and the educational curriculum. More specifically, they need to understand the courses and sequencing of courses offered within each curriculum track as well as future career and postsecondary school options for which each track will prepare them.

Educational planning often has been viewed as an administrative duty (e.g., course registration) rather than a crucial component of career development services. In an effort to prepare students and their parents for informed decision-making, school counselors can identify the ways they and/or their schools address the two competencies discussed above. One example of comprehensive educational and career planning for middle school students can be located in Trusty, Niles, and Carney (2005).

School counselors also might consider the benefits of conducting student and parent surveys to assess knowledge of or satisfaction with the curriculum track choice process. Classroom or large-group course selection meetings alone are not sufficient to ensure that students truly understand their options, and lack of parental involvement seems problematic. Individual meetings held with students and their parents could be beneficial but may not be realistic given large student to school counselor ratios. As such, smaller group sessions and parent information workshops might be more feasible. Informational brochures created with input from students and parents also could be useful, making sure to have these types of materials available in various world languages. Essentially, school counselors should be creative in finding ways to efficiently yet effectively address students' educational planning and career development needs, and they can start by assessing the status of their own students' preparation for making informed curriculum choices.


Recent projections show continued growth in occupations for which postsecondary education is required. As more parents, teachers, and school counselors recommend college to high school students, attention must be directed to the evaluation of current educational tracking policy, and the quality of educational and career planning offered in elementary and middle school. School counselors at all grade levels can work together to assess existing policies in their schools, review their current curriculum choice process in relation to equity and promoting excellence for all students, mad develop methods for ensuring that students and their parents are making well-informed choices that do not unnecessarily limit their future educational and occupational aspirations. |


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Patrick Akos, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. E-mail:

Glenn W. Lambie, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida, Orlando.

Amy Milsom, D.Ed., is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Kelly Gilbert is a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Table 1. Number and Percent of Individuals Who Chose Each Standard
Course of Study by Race, Gender, ESL, SES, and Ability Classification

Classification University College Tech Career Occupational
 (N= 312) (N= 177) (N= 27) (N= 6)
 n % n % n % n %
 White 225 61 124 33 18 5 4 1
 Black 58 55 38 36 8 8 2 2
 Hispanic 9 43 11 52 1 5 0 0
 Asian 13 100 0 0 0 0 0 0
 Multiracial 6 67 3 33 0 0 0 0
 Male 141 54 94 36 21 8 3 1
 Female 171 65 83 32 6 2 3 1
 ESL 6 35 10 59 1 6 0 0
 Non-ESL 306 61 167 33 26 5 6 1
 Free/reduced 54 39 67 48 15 11 3 2
 No free/reduced 258 68 109 29 12 3 3 1
 Special 24 32 33 43 13 17 6 8
 Regular 196 56 138 40 14 4 0 0
Gifted 91 95 5 5 0 0 0 0

Note. % = percentage within each classification (due to rounding,
percentages may not total 100).
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Author:Akos, Patrick; Lambie, Glenn W.; Milson, Amy; Gilbert, Kelly
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Date:Oct 1, 2007
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