When the U.S. Department of Education released its high school transcript study this spring, federal officials trumpeted the good news: More students were taking tougher academic courses in 2000 than were in 1990.
Even better, the improvements in coursetaking patterns had occurred across all racial and ethnic groups. (“High School Course Loads Tougher, Study Says,” April 7, 2004.)
A between-the-lines analysis of the numbers, however, suggests a more sobering view of the data. Despite the rise in academic coursework, the analysis found, the achievement gaps separating black and Hispanic students from their white and Asian-American peers were as wide in 2000 as they were a decade earlier for mathematics and science.
The closer analysis was conducted by Sharif M. Shakrani, the deputy executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board.
Because the independent board exists to set policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Mr. Shakrani naturally used those NAEP tests as his achievement yardsticks.
He found that the proportion of African-American students taking Algebra 2, for example, increased from 41 percent in 1990 to 60 percent in 2000. For Hispanics, the proportion taking that course grew from 36 percent to 54 percent over the same period. The increase for white students was smaller, rising from 50 percent in 1990 to 57 percent in 2000.
Yet over that decade, scores on the 12th grade NAEP tests in mathematics increased for all three groups by similar amounts—about 6 to 7 scale score points. In other words, despite the comparatively larger leaps that black and Hispanic students had made in taking more academically challenging courses over that decade, the achievement gaps separating them from their white and Asian-American peers were as wide in 2000 as they were in 1990.
Mr. Shakrani said, however, that the numbers in the transcript study could be misleading because the study included no data on the content of those higher-level courses.
Mr. Shakrani hopes to publish a report on his findings next winter in the journal Mathematics Teacher.
A version of this article appeared in the July 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as Scholarly Citings