Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Test scores raise question: Are 'advanced' high school courses really advanced?

The percentage of high school students taking classes that sound rigorous nearly tripled in the last 20 years, but some studies reports that hasn't translated into higher test scores. "The reason, according to a growing body of research, is that the content of these courses is not as high-achieving as their names — the course-title equivalent of grade inflation," Sam Dillon of The New York Times reports. "Algebra II is sometimes just Algebra I. And College Preparatory Biology can be just Biology." We wonder if problem is more prevalent in rural schools, which may lack faculty to teach truly advanced courses. It's a question for any school district.

Lynn T. Mellor, a researcher in Texas, compares the phenomenon to labeling orange soda as healthier orange juice. "Like the misleading drink labels, course titles may bear little relationship to what students have actually learned," said Mellor, who has analyzed course completion, test records and other student data in Texas. "We see students taking more and more advanced courses, but still not performing well on end-of-course exams." The nation's 17-year-olds on average scored no higher on federal tests in 2009 than they did in 1973, and SAT scores have leveled out since 2000, Dillon writes.

However, "a federal study released this month of nearly 38,000 high school transcripts showed that the proportion of graduates completing a rigorous curriculum rose to 13 percent in 2009 from 5 percent in 1990," Dillon writes. Researchers suggest schools apply more rigorous names to courses to help students satisfy some states' tougher graduation requirements, satisfy parents' interest in rigorous coursework for their children and boost administrators' vanity in offering ambitious courses. Some educators argue students benefit from being exposed to more ambitious coursework even if they don't perform well, Dillon writes.

"Course-title inflation is easier to document in math and science, researchers said, but they suspect it is happening in English and other subjects, too," Dillon reports. The number of Advanced Placement exams taken by U.S. high school students almost doubled from 1.2 million in 2000 to 3.1 million in 2010 and not every student who takes an AP course, takes the exam. The failure rate rose from 36.4 percent in 2000 to 42.5 percent in 2010. (Read more)

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