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Studies Chart Big Boosts in Course-Taking

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A dozen years after a national commission proclaimed that the U.S. education system was being threatened by "a rising tide of mediocrity," American high school students are taking more--and tougher--academic courses.

The good news comes from a few reports issued in recent months by the U.S. Department of Education and by the College Board, an association of colleges and universities. Among the upbeat conclusions coming out of the data are the following:

  • In 1992, public high school graduates earned an average of 2.6 more course units than their counterparts did in 1982.
  • Some of schools' biggest enrollment gains have come in academically challenging mathematics and science courses. The percentage of students who took algebra and geometry, for example, grew from 29 percent in 1982 to 50 percent in 1992. Participation in calculus classes more than doubled over the same period, increasing from 4 percent to 10 percent.

By 1992, male and female high school graduates were taking roughly equal numbers of science and maths courses.

"Last year we started to see these trends in increased course-taking and increased participation, and the participation seemed to be matched with improved assessments," said Sharon P. Robinson, the assistant secretary for the Education Department's office of educational research and improvement. "But this year the data reinforced our enthusiasm."

A Gradual Effort

The growth in academic course-taking that is documented in the new reports is not completely unexpected. Since at least the mid-1980s, following the publication of A Nation at Risk, the influential report that warned of academic mediocrity, nearly all states have moved to increase their minimum graduation requirements.

Skeptics have suggested that schools might simply have changed course labels to meet the new requirements and that students are getting the same curricular fare they were offered before.

The newer evidence suggests, however, that the gains in course-taking are solid.

"I would say the content of these courses remained unchanged as a result of increases in the numbers of students taking the courses," said Andrew C. Porter, the director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

In a report published last year, Mr. Porter and his colleagues took a closer look at what went on in some of the math and science courses that had enrollment gains in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They visited classrooms in seven states and asked teachers to keep a log for a year on what they taught. The researchers found that in classes with sudden influxes of students because of new state minimum-graduation requirements, students were not getting watered-down content. They were learning the same material as students in similar classes with stable enrollments--classes that traditionally were set aside for the academically elite.

At the same time, mathematics and science scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a congressionally mandated test given every two years to nationally representative samples of students, have also increased. However, NAEP reading scores were about the same in 1992 as they were in 1984.

And the College Board, in releasing results last month on the Scholastic Assessment Test, attributed an increase in those test scores to more students taking more Advanced Placement and honors courses. The average verbal score increased five points, to 428, and the average math score rose three points, to 482. The sat, which is scored on a scale of 200 to 800, is given annually to college-bound high school seniors. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995.)

"There's no way at a macro level that you can argue cause and effect," Mr. Porter said. "But there is a lot of research that points to the obvious: Students learn more of what they study than what they don't study."

Closing the Gaps

The new Education Department reports that document the improvements in course-taking include: "The Condition of Education: 1995"; "Trends Among High School Seniors, 1972-1992"; "High School Students Ten Years After 'A Nation at Risk"'; and "The Educational Progress of Black Students." The bulk of the data in those studies comes from national surveys of hundreds of thousands of transcripts from high school seniors.

In A Nation at Risk, the National Commission on Excellence in Education recommended that high school graduates complete: four units of English, three science courses, three social-studies units, three units of math, and half a unit of computer science. The new surveys show the number of high school graduates who completed those courses grew from 13 percent in 1982 to 47 percent in 1992.

Much of that increase came about because more female, black, and Hispanic students began enrolling in academic programs rather than general-education tracks. Among whites, the percentages of students taking college-preparatory classes remained about the same.

As a result, by 1992, girls had caught up to boys. They were taking the same amount of math and science courses as boys were, and, on NAEP math tests, the gap between girls' scores and those of boys had almost disappeared.

But black and Hispanic students in 1992 remained less likely than white students to take more rigorous science and math courses or to study foreign languages.

A Rosier Picture?

The new reports, released in July and August, are the latest in a series of books and reports that paint a rosier picture of education than did the critiques issued in the 1980s. The Education Department and College Board reports were joined this month by a new book, The Manufactured Crisis: Myth, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools, that attempts to debunk negative claims about education. (See Education Week, Sept. 13, 1995.)

Still, in viewing gains in course-taking, the glass can be seen as half-empty as well as half-full.

"We made great strides in course-taking, but we still fall far short of the minimum requirements by about half," said Paul E. Barton, who wrote a report on course-taking patterns last year for the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service, which administers exams and conducts instructional programs in education research, testing, and evaluation. If 47 percent of students were taking the minimal recommended courses, then 53 percent were not.

Moreover, large gaps remain between society's haves and have-nots. In 1992, 28 percent of the poorest one-fourth of high school seniors were enrolled in college-preparatory programs. In comparison, 68 percent of seniors from families at the top one-fourth of the socioeconomic scale were in those programs.

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