School & District Management

High School Course Loads Tougher, Study Says

By Debra Viadero — April 07, 2004 2 min read
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High school students in the class of 2000 took tougher academic courses and earned higher grades than their predecessors did 10 years earlier, according to a federal study.

“The High School Transcript Study: A Decade of Change in Curricula and Achievement, 1990-2000,” is available from the National Center for Educational Statistics. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The study, released last month by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, is based on a nationwide analysis of the high school transcripts of nearly 21,000 seniors.

Peggy Carr, the associate commissioner for assessment for the NCES, said the trends documented in the study appear to be good news for the decades-long movement to improve schooling.

She urged some caution, though, in interpreting the results because federal researchers don’t know the exact content of the courses students took or whether grade inflation might explain the increases in A’s and B’s on students’ report cards.

Overall, there was an increase in the number of courses students were taking. Between 1990 and 2000, the report shows, the credits that 12th graders earned in all their courses rose from 23.6 to 26.2.

The statistics suggest that a rise in academic coursework accounts for a big part of that growth. In the core fields of mathematics, science, English, and social studies, the number of credits that students earned increased from 13.7 in 1990 to 15 a decade later.

At the same time, students took slightly fewer vocational courses than their predecessors did. The number of credits earned in those courses decreased from 3.5 to 3.1 over the span of the study. (Students did, however, take slightly more computer-related courses in 2000.)

Despite the heavier academic workload, students’ grade point averages increased over the same period. On a 4-point scale, 12th graders’ GPAs grew, on average, from 2.68 to 2.94. The grade improvements occurred among boys, girls, students of most racial and ethnic groups, and in all types of schools and regions of the country, federal officials said.

The survey suggests that students struggled the most in math and science. At a mean of 2.6 and 2.67, respectively, grade averages in those courses were the lowest among the 14 courses included in the study.

Also, students who took advanced courses in both math and science tended to have higher GPAs than those who took an advanced course in just one of those subjects.

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