Test-Score Decline Caused by Drop in Academic Rigor, Study Finds

By James Hertling — December 12, 1984 4 min read

A study sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics claims that the decline in test scores between 1972 and 1980 was caused by decreased academic rigor in the high-school curriculum and by a drop in the amount of time students spent on homework.

The study’s findings are markedly similar to previous analyses of declining student performance offered by the National Commission on Excellence in Education and the researcher James S. Coleman, who recently reaffirmed his controversial contention that private schools’ emphasis on order, academic rigor, and homework results in better student performance than that achieved by public schools.

“The major factor contributing to test-score decline was a decreased academic emphasis in the educational process,” according to a briefing paper on the $100,000 study, which was prepared by the Educational Testing Service under contract to the federal agency and released last Friday.

The analysts concluded that schools should require more courses in the “New Basics"--English, mathematics, science, social studies, and computer science--for students in nonacademic tracks; upgrade course content and instructional methods; and assign “appropriate amounts” of homework.

Black-White Differences

The study compared high-school seniors in 1972 with seniors in 1980, using data from the 1972 National Longitudinal Study and from the ongoing longitudinal study, “High School and Beyond.” The researchers looked specifically at scores from tests administered for each of the two studies analyzed.

Noting the success of federal and state compensatory-education programs, they reported that test-score declines for blacks and other disadvantaged students were considerably less pronounced than those of white students.

The authors did not draw a direct causal connection between compensatory-education programs and minimal declines in the test scores of black students relative to whites, according to Margaret E. Goertz, an ets analyst who wrote part of the study. But she said that “there is no other explanation for the difference in the decline in scores.”

With all background variables held constant, “blacks are doing better in relation to the white students,” according to Ms. Goertz.

All Subjects Affected

Between 1972 and 1980, average scores for tests in vocabulary, reading, and mathematics all declined for males and females, and for both white students and racial minorities.

In vocabulary and reading, whites showed greater declines than blacks or Mexican-Americans, whose declines were not statistically significant, according to the briefing paper.

And in mathematics, where white students’ scores showed a statistically significant decline, black students’ showed a marginal, or statistically insignificant, increase.

Previous Findings Confirmed

The ets analysis confirms several of the hypotheses posed in a study of test-score declines sponsored by the College Board in 1975, according to Thomas L. Hilton, a senior research scientist at ets

The College Board Blue Ribbon Panel, headed by Willard Wirtz, the former secretary of labor, found that test-score declines in the 1960’s resulted from the increase in the number of students taking the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, according to Mr. Hilton.

But the test-taking population leveled off in the early 1970’s, Mr. Hilton noted, and the commission, lacking adequate data, offered several hypotheses for the test-score declines that followed, among them the proliferation of elective courses and the relaxation of academic standards.

Curricular Shifts

Between 1972 and 1980, according to the new study, the proportion of students in the academic track in high schools declined from 45.7 percent to 38.1 percent. The students who shifted into general and vocational curricula took fewer courses in basic skills than those in the academic track, the briefing paper said.

Standardized-test scores for both males and females in the academic track declined between 1972 and 1980--with female students registering significant decreases in vocabulary, reading, and mathematics.

Furthermore, the proportion of schools in which most students were enrolled in the general curriculum nearly doubled between 1972 and 1980--from 25.1 percent to 47.4 percent.

Students Express Concern

The data suggest that students in all three tracks recognize, and object to, the trend away from academics. In 1972, 50.3 percent of students agreed with the statement that their school should provide more academic emphasis; by 1980, the figure had increased to 71.7 percent.

The study noted that the shift away from academic emphasis occurred primarily in schools serving students of “low and middle socio-economic status.”

And nearly 1 in 10 schools reported a dropout rate of 20 percent or more in 1980, up from 3.6 percent in 1972.

Other school characteristics that are associated with the test-score declines, according to the analysis, are decreases in a school’s physical resources and students’ ratings of the quality of instruction and the physical condition of school buildings.

Less Homework

The researchers also found that high-school seniors did less homework in 1980 than in 1972.

The estimated decline was from about 4.76 hours of homework per week in 1972, to 4.21 hours in 1980. The proportion of students doing less than five hours of homework per week increased in all three curricular tracks.

And students’ involvement in nonacademic extracurricular activities increased between 1972 and 1980.

Among the other student characteristics--or “individual student school behaviors"--that contributed to the decline in test scores were reductions in the amounts of foreign-language and science courses, according to the briefing paper.

A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 1984 edition of Education Week as Test-Score Decline Caused by Drop in Academic Rigor, Study Finds