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Rigor Is Better

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A new study of high school student transcripts shows surprising results.

Last week the National Center for Education Statistics released the latest High School Transcript Study, which presents information from transcripts collected from a nationally representative sample of more than 37,000 high school graduates from more than 700 public and private schools. The study documents the number and types of courses that high school graduates in the class of 2009 took and how their course-taking patterns relate to their performance on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) mathematics and science assessments.

These transcript studies contain lots of interesting information. Here are some highlights.

High school students are taking more courses and more academic ones than ever before—a trend that shows no sign of abating.

For years now, many critics of education reform have complained about “narrowing the curriculum”—how only tested subjects get taught. Since No Child Left Behind focused on core academic disciplines such as reading and math, critics have argued that the curriculum focused on these subjects to the exclusion of others. Wrong—at least when it comes to high schools.

The transcript study shows a long-term trend in which high school students are taking more courses and more academic ones than ever before—a trend that shows no sign of abating. In short, the high school curriculum, far from narrowing, is getting deeper and broader.

For example, the number of high school credits graduates took has increased by 15 percent since 1990 (up from 23.6 in 1990 to 27.2 in 2009). This increase was driven by an emphasis on academics. Between 1990 and 2009, high school graduates increased their enrollment in “core academic” courses (English, math, science, and social studies) by 17 percent and in “other academic” courses (fine arts, foreign languages, and computer-related studies) by almost 50 percent. In contrast, students took fewer “other” courses (such as vocational education and personal hygiene). It is harder to sustain such large increases in credits as the base course load gets bigger, but still there was a 4 percent gain in credits taken since 2000 (see the chart on page 12 of the report). Again, this was driven by academic courses. Since 2000, students took one additional credit in “core academic” courses, an additional 0.5 credits in “other academic” courses, and continued to take fewer “other” courses.

Students who took a rigorous curricula outscored students who took a below standard curriculum by more than 40 scale points in math and science.

A second important finding in the study is that a more rigorous curriculum pays off with higher NAEP science and math scores. Students who took a rigorous curricula outscored students who took a below-standard curriculum by more than 40 scale points in math and science. Clearly, this is correlational and not causal. The study shows that the relationship between curriculum and performance has persistent race and ethnicity patterns. At any level of curriculum, black and Hispanic students lag, often considerably, behind whites and Asian/Pacific Islanders (chart, page 42).

This leads me to question the quality of the curriculum as delivered in schools serving minority students. I suspect that many schools are likely relabeling courses and not delivering the course content implied by the course titles. NAEP is undertaking some studies that should shed light on this issue.

Besides this race and ethnic difference, a couple of other issues strike me as important.

While there has been progress in getting more students to take a more rigorous course of study, far too few students are taking the most rigorous curriculum. Only about 13 percent of students take the “rigorous” curriculum, up from 10 percent in 2000 and 5 percent in 1990, but still a low number. More encouraging: 46 percent take the midlevel curriculum and the percentage of students with that curriculum continues to expand.

While there has been progress in getting more students to take a more rigorous course of study, far too few students are taking the most rigorous curriculum.

But perhaps most disturbing is that high schools are failing to exploit emerging opportunities for students to increase their course-taking. Many critics argue that our school year and school day are too short—and clearly the evidence from the transcript study shows that exposure to more courses is associated with higher NAEP scores. The transcript study explores two ways in which students could take more courses: summer school and online education. In both cases, our high schools are dropping the ball.

The transcript study shows that summer school is mostly for remediation and for students trying to recover from failing courses. For example, more than 30 percent of students who were in the least rigorous curriculum enrolled in summer school, while only 16 percent of the students who took the most rigorous curriculum did so. And students who enrolled in summer school scored far lower on NAEP math and science scores than did students who did not enroll in summer school (see Figure 33 and Figure 34 of the report). Clearly, enrollment in summer school is not usually for academic advancement.

Even more serious is our failure to take advantage of online education. Our ability to deliver high quality online math courses is far more advanced than in other subjects. Yet only 5 percent or so of students took online math courses—and they scored lower on their NAEP tests than students who did not take such courses. This suggests that like summer school, online education is more for credit recovery than for learning and perfecting advanced skills.

Online courses should allow good students to enhance their skills and take advanced courses that might not be available in their own school. Instead, our high schools are missing an opportunity for true advances in delivering high quality courses, not just for students who are lagging, but for students who want to excel.

Mark Schneider is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and vice president at the American Institutes for Research.

FURTHER READING: Schneider wrote “States of Dishonesty,” “How Bad Are Our Graduation Rates?” and “We’re Still ‘Lying to Our Children.’” He explains why “What Parents Don't Know about College Graduation Rates Can Hurt,” says “Big-Bucks College Presidents Don't Earn Their Pay,” and writes that D.C. schools offer “Choice without Options.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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