Special Report

Quantity of Coursework Rises Since 1983

By Lynn Olson — April 23, 2003 | Corrected: May 27, 2020 16 min read
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Corrected: This story gave a wrong title for a study by Clifford Adelman. The correct title is “Answers in the Tool Box: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor’s Degree Attainment.”

It’s the most familiar recommendation in that most familiar of reports, A Nation at Risk.

Twenty years ago this week, the National Commission on Excellence in Education recommended that all high school students complete four years of English, three years of mathematics, three years of science, three years of social studies, and a half-year of computer science. College-bound students were encouraged to add two years of a foreign language.

Warning of a “rising tide of mediocrity” in American education, the report called on the nation to raise its expectations for students, develop rigorous and measurable standards for academic performance, and better prepare and reward teachers.

Two decades later, students are taking more academic courses than before. When computer science is excluded, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of students taking the so-called “new basics” curriculum advocated in the federal report roughly quadrupled from fewer than 14 percent of graduates in 1982 to 56 percent in 1998.

But research shows it’s the level and quality, not just the quantity, of courses that count. And while more students, particularly poor and minority students, are taking higher-level courses than ever before, significant gaps remain.

By 1998, for example, 45 percent of white and 56 percent of Asian high school graduates had completed some advanced math or science courses, but only 30 percent of black and 26 percent of Hispanic graduates had done so.

“In saying we ought to take more courses, we probably said too little about the quality of the courses,” Milton Goldberg, who served as the executive director of the commission for the U.S. Department of Education, said recently.

Since 1983, studies have shown that students who take advanced courses, particularly in math, generally achieve at higher levels, attend and finish college at higher rates, and earn more as adults than their peers who take lower-level courses.

Finishing a course beyond the level of Algebra 2 “more than doubles the odds that a student who enters postsecondary education will complete a bachelor’s degree,” concluded researcher Clifford Adelman in “Answers in the Tool box,” a 1999 analysis of longitudinal data from the federal High School & Beyond survey. The sequence of math courses a student took in high school was even more important than socioeconomic status in predicting a student’s odds of finishing college, he concluded.

The study found that the effects of taking a “high academic intensity” curriculum were most positive for African- American and Latino students.

More recently, Anthony P. Carnevale and Donna M. Desrochers of the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service analyzed data from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey. They found that more than half the workers in the highest-paying jobs (those earning more than $40,000 a year) had two or more credits at the Algebra 2 level or higher. That compared with 27 percent of workers earning $25,000 to $40,000 annually and 20 percent of those at the bottom of the earnings distribution. Strong preparation in English/language arts also appeared to provide an edge in the labor market, though not as pronounced.

“It’s really clear, if you had to put it on a bumper stick, that Algebra 2 is the new civil right,” said Mr. Carnevale, the vice president for assessment, equity, and careers at the ETS. “It’s the threshold course.”

Yet by 1998, only about six in 10 high school graduates had completed Algebra 2. And only 16 percent had taken both chemistry and physics.

The proportion of high school graduates who had completed advanced or “honors” English courses more than doubled, to 29 percent, from 1982 to 1998. But the percent of students completing low-level academic English courses also increased.

Gene Bottoms, a senior vice president at the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, contends that “an awful lot of layering in the language arts curriculum” still goes on in high schools.

“If you’re in the so-called ‘honors’ or college-preparatory strand, you’re going to read eight or 10 books a year,” he said. “You’re going to have to demonstrate that you understand those materials pretty deeply. You’re going to have to write a short paper every week. You’re going to have to write major research papers.

“But if you get stuck in the second-tier language arts curriculum,” he continued, “you’re going to read much less, you’re going to write less frequently, you’re going to have to rewrite your materials less to meet quality.”

Data from High Schools That Work, a program that Mr. Bottoms founded to increase the academic and technical preparation of teenagers, show a higher proportion of boys than girls end up in lower-level language arts courses.

Moreover, notes Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, large gaps remain between the academic standards required to earn a high school diploma and those needed to enter four-year colleges. Even technical programs within community colleges often demand higher admissions standards than state high school graduation requirements.

A study Mr. Kirst recently completed across six states indicates that fewer than 12 percent of students surveyed knew all the curricular requirements for admission to their states’ postsecondary institutions. Partly as a result, he argues, about half the students entering college begin by taking remedial courses, which greatly decreases the chance they will ever graduate.

Based on an analysis of credits earned by students who took the ACT college-admission tests, a study by the Mortenson Research Seminar on Public Policy, in Oskaloosa, Iowa, showed substantial gains in academic preparation for college up to about 1998, but few improvements in coursetaking thereafter.

“In fact,” the study, released in February, says, “the proportion of ACT-tested college-bound high school seniors completing ACT’s core curriculum (similar to the new basics) in 2002 was the lowest in five years.”

One exception, the study found, is that from 1997 to 2002, students from families with incomes lower than $25,000 a year amassed the largest gains in academic preparation for college, as measured by the number of academic credits earned. They continued to lag behind their more affluent peers, however.

The Council of Chief State School Officers has found big jumps in advanced math and science coursetaking for both white and minority students since it began tracking such data in 1990. But large gaps remain. From 1996 to 2000, only four of the nine states with trend data from the decade showed increased enrollments in chemistry and Algebra 2 for Hispanic or African-American students.

Gaps by Race, Income

Today, minority students and those from poor families remain underrepresented in the most rigorous high school courses. And progress in closing the gap in performance between minority and nonminority students has slowed.

Ronald F. Ferguson, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, notes that black teenagers made rapid improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and math tests during the 1980s, but that their progress had stopped by 1990.

He attributes the earlier gains, in part, to the fact that from 1982 to 1990, black and Hispanic students on average increased the number of math courses they took at the level of algebra or higher by almost a full course; white students raised theirs by half a course. Yet far more remains to be done.

The “1998 High School Transcript Study,” which analyzed coursetaking patterns for a nationally representative sample of high school students, found that African-American and Hispanic students were far less likely than their white or Asian-American peers to have completed advanced math and science courses in high school. And they were less likely to have taken honors, AP, or IB courses in English.

One problem, explains Shariff M. Shakrani, the deputy executive director of the board that oversees NAEP, is that black and Hispanic students are less likely to have a strong foundation in math at the middle school level. So they begin high school in lower-level classes and tend not to forge through an advanced math or science sequence.

Allan H. Slawson, a 9th grade algebra teacher at Shaker Heights High School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a well-to-do, racially integrated suburb of Cleveland, says African-American students often are reluctant to enroll in honors classes, in part because they lack confidence that they can do the work.

“I’ve really had to do some arm-twisting,” he said. “I’ve had students tell me, ‘I’m just not good enough to be an honors-level student.’ And so I will call home. I’ll discuss it with the parents. And I will find a way to strongly urge the students to try the next level up.

“It doesn’t take too long to figure out in our culture that the frequently unspoken—and sometimes spoken—message is that if you’re African-American, at least in an academic setting, you are less capable.”

William H. Schmidt, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, estimates that about 25 percent of the difference between blacks’ and whites’ test scores on the 1995 Third International Mathematics and Science Study may have been related to differences in coursetaking behavior. About half the white students, but only 30 percent of black students, in the study—known as TIMSStook precalculus or calculus, he pointed out.

‘Unequal on the Inside’

Access to academic rigor remains deeply stratified two decades after A Nation at Risk helped propel the movement to make high school more challenging, maintains Michelle M. Fine, a social psychology professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

A survey she conducted of nearly 4,000 high school students in the New York metropolitan area last year revealed that the proportion of students who had been in AP, honors, or IB classes differed significantly by race and ethnicity. That held true even among students of college-educated parents.

While 67 percent of white or Asian students from college-educated households reported they had taken such courses, only 47 percent of African-American, Afro-Caribbean, or Latino students from such households said they had.

“These schools are largely and unfortunately segregated and unequal on the inside,” Ms. Fine contended in a presentation earlier this year. “They’re deeply tracked. Within the same building, kids are getting a very different education.”

Among the students surveyed, those of color enrolled in high-track courses were the most likely to agree that “while my school is considered integrated or mixed by race and ethnicity, in reality most classes are not as mixed as they should be.” More than six in 10 African-American, Afro-Caribbean, or Latino students enrolled in advanced classes agreed with that statement vs. 39 percent of white students in such courses.

Wrote one student when asked to “describe what you imagine ‘the best possible school experience’ to be for yourself": “Where the color of your skin does not interfere with you getting in an honors or AP class. The teachers treat minorities in honors classes as capable students who work hard rather than they are just being placed to integrate the classes.”

“Schools rarely say to themselves, ‘So what’s our job vis-à-vis broader racial and class inequities?’ ” Ms. Fine said. “Are we simply going to reproduce them or are we going to challenge them?

“What I’m now saying to my suburban colleagues is, ‘You are doing a great job in these honors tracks. The only thing that the top-track kids score less well on is: ‘How integrated are your classes?’ ”

Same Content, New Label?

Although the proportion of students taking advanced classes has increased, achievement on NAEP hasn’t kept pace. That suggests some courses have simply been “relabeled” or those classes have deeper problems related to content and instruction.

For example, research suggests greater learning gains occur in classrooms where students receive intellectually challenging assignments, but the 2001 Metropolitan Life Survey of the American Teacher showed that fewer than one- fourth of high school students described their classes as challenging.

Though many states raised their high school graduation requirements following A Nation at Risk, said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, “many of these changes were superficial.”

“Nobody checked to see if these new course labels led to better instruction in the classroom,” Mr. Finn, an assistant U.S. secretary of education during the Reagan administration, said during a conference earlier this year.

“Instead of strengthening the curriculum, the increases in state graduation requirements seem only to have intensified the ‘shopping mall’ character of many American secondary schools,” writes Barbara Schneider, a senior social scientist with the National Opinion Research Center, located at the University of Chicago.

Based on an analysis of high school transcripts from national longitudinal surveys, she found that many districts had added courses that varied considerably in content and difficulty. From 1980 to 1990, the number of different courses taken by high school students increased by 10 percent.

Similarly, Mr. Schmidt of the University of Michigan turned up more than six dozen distinct coursetaking patterns among U.S. high school students participating in TIMSS in the 1994-95 school year.

“The fact that there are 76 different patterns for the combination of mathematics and science levels even at this level of aggregation reflects the absence of clear course standards for U.S. high school students,” he wrote in a paper for the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Even among students who identified themselves as college- bound, Mr. Schmidt noted, “large degrees of freedom in coursetaking were evident.” Fewer than a third of those students had taken precalculus, or introductory courses in each of biology, chemistry, and physics.

Rolf Blank, who directs the CCSSO’s education-indicators program, said the problem is less that what was a general math course is now called an algebra course, but the enormous variation within algebra courses.

“Everybody is teaching algebra,” he said. “They use an algebra book. They have an algebra course. But it just varies enormously.”

“There are efforts to apply standards to these courses,” he added, “and one way it happens is through the exam process.”

Diane Ravitch, a historian at New York University and a former assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration, said the push over the past decade for standards-based education “has in large measure been an effort to identify what students should learn so that there’s not a mislabeling” of courses. But she cautioned that while many people complain of relabeled courses with watered-down content, not a lot of data are available to support that contention.

“Are kids taking the same courses as before but with fancier labels? I don’t really know,” Ms. Ravitch said.

Mr. Blank noted that reliable, comparable data on the content of instruction in specific science and math courses are not available across states.

Beyond the ‘New Basics’

Faced with data on inequities in coursetaking by race and income, some scholars suggest that schools should “detrack"—in other words, get rid of general, college- preparatory, and honors classes in favor of more heterogeneous groupings.

Ms. Fine, for example, found that students in small, detracked high schools had the most favorable view of their academic experiences, across a variety of measures. (“Students: Small Schools Challenging,” this issue.)

But others point out that simply doing away with different levels of classes may not greatly improve achievement.

“My view is that American children could take courses with more solid academic content. But they have to be prepared as they go into those classes, because otherwise the content gets watered down,” said Bill Evers, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a think tank based at Stanford University. “I think while we can climb quite a few steps up the ladder from where we are, we should also take account of different pacing for different students.”

“You’re not doing a child any favor by putting them in a classroom where the assumed foundational knowledge is at a higher level than where they are,’ Mr. Ferguson of Harvard said.

If there’s a solution, he said, it’s to provide high-quality instruction to children starting in the early grades, tailored to where they start, so that students can gradually catch up and move up. In addition, he suggested, the quality of the relationship between teachers and pupils may hold a key to success, particularly for minority youngsters.

At least some high schools are beginning to tackle such issues.

Members of the Minority Student Achievement Network, a coalition of 15 districts working to close the achievement gap between white students and those of color, are exploring whether taking courses like Algebra 1 over a longer period of time or using different instructional techniques helps.

Other schools are assigning minority students to AP courses in groups “so they don’t look around the room and see no one else like themselves,” said Rossi Ray-Taylor, the executive director of the Evanston, Ill.-based network. Still other schools are offering support courses to students at the same time that they take advanced classes.

In the coalition of New York-area districts that Ms. Fine works with, schools are trying a range of solutions, from eliminating tracking in mathematics to encouraging more students to enroll in advanced courses.

“You could like or not like what people are doing about it, but people are beginning to move,” Ms. Fine said. “There’s a kind of growing courage.”

At least one state, Texas, has decided that all high school students should complete a rigorous academic curriculum as the default option, starting with 9th graders in 2004.

Known as the Texas Recommended High School Program, it includes math through Algebra 2; biology, chemistry, and physics; U.S. and world history; four years of English; and two years of a foreign language.

“It’s not just the number of courses; it’s which courses,” said John Stevens, the executive director of the Austin-based Texas Business and Education Coalition. Proponents are now working with individual colleges and universities to line up their admission standards with the new graduation requirements.

Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit organization located in Washington, advocates that all states create a “standard state curriculum” through grade 10, or age 16, that would be pegged to the admission requirements for state college systems without remediation.

Such a curriculum, he argues, should include actual syllabi that would specify the content and sequencing of about three-quarters of the total course load, complete with end-of-course exams.

But others point out that however difficult it is to redesign the curriculum in U.S. high schools, even that step may not be enough.

One such observer is Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve Inc., a Washington-based group that promotes standards-based education, and a former assistant education secretary in the Clinton administration. A more powerful, radical set of changes in the structure of public high schools may be necessary for student achievement to really improve, he suggests.

Says Mr. Cohen: “The strategy that [A Nation at Risk] embodied of simply changing the courses students would take, while important, was hardly sufficient.”


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