Low-Achieving and High-Achieving Students Receive Different Instruction, Report Finds

By Sarah Schwartz — August 16, 2019 2 min read
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In reading, math, and science, teachers whose students scored low on a national test reported being less likely to ask their classes to engage in higher-order thinking or offer them advanced work than teachers whose students scored high, a report from the National Center for Education Statistics finds.

The new analysis uses data from the 2015 NAEP assessment. As a component of the test, teachers and students answered survey questions about classroom instruction—what content teachers covered and what activities they did.

This report examines trends in responses to those questionnaires and also links the data to student achievement results, offering a look at the differences between the content teachers emphasized and the instructional strategies they used with low-scoring students and high-scoring students.

In reading, for example, it was generally common for teachers to ask their students to complete reading comprehension activities. But the teachers of low-performing students assigned different ones than the teachers of high-performing students.

Teachers whose 8th grade students scored below NAEP’s basic achievement level were more likely to ask them to summarize passages, but less likely to ask them to identify main themes, or question the motives or feelings of characters. A similar pattern emerged for older students: 12th graders who scored below basic level were less likely to say their teachers asked them to interpret and analyze passages.

This trend also showed up in science classes, where lower-scoring 4th and 12th graders weren’t doing as much inquiry-based learning as their higher-scoring peers.

Are the differences in teachers’ instruction the reason for the difference in test scores? Or are teachers changing their strategies for low- and high-scoring students, based on their assessments of students’ abilities? The report doesn’t investigate cause-and-effect, the authors write, so the analysis can’t provide answers on these questions.

Other trends showed up across the board. In math courses, more 4th and 8th grade teachers prioritized content related to algebra and functions than they did in previous years. About half of all 4th grade teachers reported that they placed a “heavy” emphasis on algebra and functions in 2015, compared to only 26 percent in 2003.

Trends in High School Courses, College Acceptance

The report also identifies some patterns in course-taking. In general, the report found, more 12th graders are taking an advanced course load in math and science than in years past.

In 2015, 27 percent said they had taken precalculus, compared to 21 percent in 2005. And 41 percent said they took courses in all three science subjects—biology, chemistry, and physics—compared to only 34 percent in 2009. But higher-scoring students are taking these courses at a much greater rate than their lower-scoring peers.

A more advanced course load was related to college acceptance. Among 12th graders who said they were accepted to four-year colleges, there were more students who reported taking biology, chemistry, and physics than among those who weren’t accepted. These accepted students were also more likely to have taken pre-calculus or higher.

Top image: Getty; Charts via NCES

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.