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Greater Expectations

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A dozen years after a national commission proclaimed in A Nation at Risk 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.

That upbeat news comes from a number of different sources, including recent reports by the U.S. Department of Education and the College Board, an association of colleges and universities. Among other things, the data show that in 1992 public high school graduates earned an average of 2.6 more course units than their counterparts did in 1982 and that some of the biggest enrollment gains have come in 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.

"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,'' says Assistant Secretary of Education Sharon Robinson, who heads the department's office of educational research and improvement. "This year, the data reinforced our enthusiasm.''

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

Some skeptics have suggested that schools simply changed course labels to meet the new requirements and that students are getting the same weak curricular fare they were offered before. The new evidence, however, suggests that the gains in course-taking are solid.

In a report published last year, Andrew Porter, director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, 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. Porter and his colleagues 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 enrollment gains 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 representative samples of students, have also improved. And the College Board has attributed recent rises in SAT scores to increasing numbers of students taking more advanced placement and honors courses. The average verbal score jumped 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.

"There's no way at a macro level that you can argue cause and effect,'' Porter says. "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.''

A Nation at Risk 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 studies show that 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 an academic program.

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,'' says Paul Barton, who wrote a report on course-taking patterns last year for the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service. If 47 percent of students are taking the minimal recommended courses, he points out, then 53 percent are not.

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