Beyond High School: Does the High School Economics Curriculum Make a Difference?

By Lopus, Jane S.; Maxwell, Nan L. | American Economist, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Beyond High School: Does the High School Economics Curriculum Make a Difference?


Lopus, Jane S., Maxwell, Nan L., American Economist


High schools are active participants in teaching economics. In 1989 twenty-eight states required that high schools instruct students in economics, with sixteen of these states requiring at least a semester course in economics for high school graduation (Highsmith, 1989, pp. 2-3). Presumably exposure to economics in high school increases the understanding of how our economy operates. If this is the case, this understanding should translate into an increased understanding of college-level economics. Interestingly, research on the impact of high school economics on college-level economics has been inconclusive. While some studies show that students who study economics in high school have a competitive edge in college principles, other studies show that these students have no advantage.(1)

We argue that the student's ability to translate high school economics into college-level economics is determined by the curriculum of the high school course, and that, because the models employed in previous studies imply homogeneity in the curricular content of the high school course, mixed conclusions have emerged from the literature. If the high school economics course concentrates on consumer issues, economic institutions, current events, or high school-level economic history instead of microeconomic or macroeconomic concepts, neither the stock nor acquisition of college-level economics would increase. Conversely, students whose high school economics course has a more theoretical microeconomic or macroeconomic focus may find it easier to translate their knowledge into college-level subject matter.

To test the proposition that the high school economics curriculum affects knowledge of college-level economics, our study focuses on high school economics courses that have a microeconomic or macroeconomic emphasis and tests whether this focus increases initial knowledge or gain in knowledge in college-level principles classes. While we find no evidence that students who studied high school economics, regardless of the curriculum, are better equipped to study college economics than students who did not, we do find that curriculum matters for students who have taken high school economics. This suggests that we must look to the high school curriculum if we want students to enter our college classes with specific economic skills. A cursory examination of whether or not a high school economics class was taken does not tell the whole story.

The Data and Estimation Model

To examine the relationship between the high school curriculum and college-level economics, we collected data from students in thirteen microeconomics and macroeconomics principles classes at a medium-sized public university in California between 1990 and 1992.(2) To quantify college-level knowledge of economics, we used the Test of Understanding in College Economics (TUCE III), administered as a pretest on the first day of class and as a post test on the last day of class TUCE III is a standardized multiple choice test consisting of a 30 question microeconomics test and a 30 question macroeconomics test (with three optional international questions) designed to test learning in college principles classes. See Saunders (1991) for a thorough discussion of TUCE III.

We used the pretest score to measure the stock of economic knowledge that a student brings to the college-level course. Following the specification recommended in Hanushek (1986, pp. 1157n), we used the post test score, with a control for the pretest score, to measure the ability to learn economics. By using the TUCE III pretest score on the right hand side of the estimation equation and the TUCE III post test score as the dependent variable, we are able to assess the learning that occurs during the college course by controlling for initial knowledge brought into the course. To quantify the economics curriculum in high school, we administered a questionnaire to students at the time of the post test. …

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