Curriculum

Research Underscores Need For Tough Courses

By Lynn Olson — May 22, 2002 6 min read

Most students would benefit from taking more rigorous and challenging courses in high school, according to a set of papers presented here last week at a conference on the American high school.

The Brookings Institution plans to publish the papers early next year. More information is available at www.brookings.edu.

The papers, introduced at the Brookings Institution, a public-policy research center, show that taking more advanced coursework—particularly in mathematics and science—was linked to higher college-going and college-graduation rates and better scores on admission exams.

“The effects for course sequence could be staggering,” said Barbara L. Schneider, the co-director of the Alfred P. Sloan Center on Parents, Children, and Work at the University of Chicago.

Ms. Schneider and a team of graduate students conducted a series of analyses of the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 to 1994, a federal database. Among other discoveries, they found that, compared with students who had taken no advanced courses, those who took advanced math and science courses were 17 times more likely to attend a four-year rather than a two-year college. African- American students were particularly likely to increase their chances for admission to a four-year institution by taking a more rigorous course sequence.

“Although students with higher academic abilities are more likely to be enrolled in higher-level courses,” Ms. Schneider wrote,"if average students take these courses and persist in them, they are likely to receive the same matriculation benefits as students who begin high school with higher test scores.”

The analyses also indicate that students who take rigorous math and science courses in high school can potentially gain 265 points on the SAT college-entrance test, out of a possible combined score of 1600, compared with students who take no such courses.

Similarly, a paper by Michael T. Nettles and his colleagues at the University of Michigan found that greater exposure to higher-level courses was associated with higher SAT scores.

Using a database containing the scores of all 1999 high school graduates who took the SAT, as well as students’ responses to a descriptive questionnaire about their social and academic backgrounds, he concluded that, compared with students who completed no higher than Algebra 2, those who completed trigonometry scored an average of almost 46 points higher on the math portion of the SAT, out of a possible 800.

Even more pronounced, teenagers who finished calculus had a 94- point advantage over those who completed only trigonometry. The researchers uncovered similar relationships for students’ verbal scores on the SAT, with higher scores linked to more advanced coursework in English.

Mr. Nettles found a 105-point gap between the SAT math scores of white and African-American students. That gap narrowed by 79 points when differences in family income were taken into account. It narrowed an additional 6 points when the fact that white students were more likely to take trigonometry was taken into account, and another 6 points when the researcher controlled for racial differences in who took calculus.

In one of the most striking findings, the almost 200-point gap in combined math and verbal SAT scores between white and African-American students turned out to be almost half as large in private, nonreligious schools, and more than one-fourth as large in Roman Catholic and other religious schools. That proved to be the case even after adjusting for characteristics commonly associated with nonpublic schools, such as smaller school size and a more academically focused curriculum.

“If I were making policy on the basis of these data alone,” said Mr. Nettles, “I would say African-American kids should go to private schools.”

Stymied by Grouping

Maureen T. Hallinan, a professor of education at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, also established that, with the exception of students in the lowest ability group, students generally attained higher test scores if they were moved to a higher ability group in high school. Ms. Hallinan based her analysis on a longitudinal database of more than 4,000 students in six public high schools in Indiana.

She observed, based on state test results, an enormous overlap in the abilities of students assigned to different groups in high school. The degree of test-score heterogeneity, she said, suggests that many students could easily be assigned to a higher ability group without their capabilities being distinguishable from many others in the group. Using a predictive model that she developed, Ms. Hallinan found that students would generally achieve higher test scores if they were moved to a higher ability group rather than remaining in the one to which they were originally assigned.

“We’re simply not challenging our students enough,” she said. “If our kids can do better when we put them in a higher ability group, we simply are not providing a rigorous enough curriculum for them to be capable of.”

Course Sequence Matters

The problem, researchers suggested, is that many students are not taking a rigorous curriculum in high school. The analyses of high school transcripts by the University of Chicago’s Ms. Schneider and her colleagues revealed that only 12 percent of high school seniors take the highest course sequence in math, 22 percent take the highest course sequence in science, and 7 percent take the highest course sequence in a foreign language. Girls, minority students, and those from lower-income families are underrepresented in the higher-level courses.

Another paper presented at the conference, which analyzed data from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, a cross-national comparison, detected 76 different math- and science-coursetaking patterns among American high school students, and 70 different patterns among those bound for college.

William H. Schmidt

The 1995 sample of 10,000-plus U.S. students showed that fewer than one-third of students took at least three years of math, up through Algebra 2, and one year each of biology, chemistry, and physics, said the paper’s author, William H. Schmidt, a professor of education at Michigan State University.

Even among college-preparatory students, only 40 percent took such a course sequence, or a more demanding pattern. When precalculus was added to the mix, that figure dropped to less than 9 percent.

Others cautioned that, while helping students complete a more rigorous academic curriculum is a worthy goal, it will hardly close the achievement gaps between students here or those here and abroad.

Indeed, a study by David P. Baker, a professor of education policy and sociology at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, indicated that many of the characteristics thought to help explain the achievement gap between U.S. teenagers and their international counterparts either do not differ dramatically among the nations participating in TIMSS or are not linked to national differences in test scores.

He found, for example, that American classrooms are no more disrupted by bullying and threats than the average across the other nations in TIMSS and that, while U.S. principals engage in less instructional leadership, such differences are not correlated with differences in performance on TIMSS.

The biggest difference, Mr. Baker said, is in the schooling available to disadvantaged students in the United States relative to other industrialized nations. Compared with disadvantaged students in other nations, students from poor families in the United States are more likely to attend schools with shortages of instructional resources, greater resource inequality, more homework, and a more complex decisionmaking structure. All those factors are correlated with lower achievement on TIMSS.

Mr. Baker speculated that assigning lots of routine and ritualistic homework may be an indicator of weak instruction and poor curriculum implementation in the classroom. “We can’t do the hard work of changing curriculum, changing instruction, and not think about resources,” he said. “That’s crazy.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2002 edition of Education Week as Research Underscores Need For Tough Courses

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