Advanced courses may not be all that advanced, some say
Educators say tests show U.S. high schools need a major overhaul.
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published February 22, 2007
Years of education reforms have failed to lift the performance of U.S. high school students, according to a gloomy set of numbers that stunned educators and brought calls Thursday for more urgency.
In the most recent national test on reading, the nation’s 12th-graders scored lower than they did in 1992. Only 73 percent scored at or above the “basic” level in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as The Nation’s Report Card. That was down from 80 percent in 1992.
Students showed a similar lack of traction in science. Learning gaps between white and minority students were as wide as ever.
“We clearly have a major problem, and it’s not going to be addressed just by some minor changes in our system,’’ said David P. Driscoll, the education commissioner of Massachusetts, which, like Florida, was an early adopter of strict school accountability.
Driscoll complained that American high schools have shorter years and shorter days than competing systems overseas. “Clearly,’’ he said at a news conference arranged by the National Assessment Governing Board, “we need to look at some major changes in the way schools are organized and the way teaching and learning is delivered.’’
Results were not available by state.
The stagnation among high school students contrasts with gains made by younger students, especially those in elementary school. It also has occurred even as high school students are exposed, more than ever, to rigorous courses.
A study of 26,000 transcripts from public and private high school students who graduated in 2005 found that 51 percent took a “mid-level” or “rigorous” curriculum with challenging requirements for math, science and foreign languages. That was up from 30 percent in 1990.
“It’s a disconnect for sure,” said Margaret Spellings, the U.S. Education Secretary, in Tampa Thursday to discuss the federal No Child Left Behind Act. “It does affirm that, by damn, we better pay attention to our high schools.”
For many top educators, the search for causes leads back to classrooms. The chief explanation, they said, is that too many classes are rigorous in name only.
“It’s important what we teach and how it is taught has to be carefully inspected course by course, textbook by textbook, classroom by classroom,’’ said David Gordon, school superintendent in Sacramento, Calif.
He called on teachers and administrators to collaborate in making sure classes are as rigorous as they should be.
“This is difficult, time-consuming work,’’ he said. “But without pulling back the curtain and taking a hard look inside the classroom, nothing is likely to change.’’
Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox said many districts have begun talking about just such an exercise.
In Pinellas, he said, a two-year-old program to assess students more frequently will help the district detect gaps in teaching.
Wilcox also argued that the trends may not be as disheartening as they appear. Though graduation rates have been flat since the 1970s, he said, a case can be made that the actual number of students getting diplomas is up.
“You have kids (graduating) that never were there before,’’ he said.
What made Thursday’s results more alarming for some was the fact that the students tested were the best the system had to offer — kids who had made it to 12th grade and were ready to graduate. The numbers also included a slight decline among students whose parents graduated from college, another group thought to be high performers.
At the Education Trust in Washington, an advocacy group that rails against the achievement gap, president Kati Haycock said the numbers revealed a broad, systemic failure.
“Students are doing what is asked of them — they are taking more academic courses and getting higher grades — but they aren’t being taught any more than in the past,” she said, calling for more qualified teachers and higher expectations.
As in the past, one number that stood out Thursday was the performance of Asian students, who perennially out-achieve students of all other ethnic backgrounds in every academic category.
Gordon, the Sacramento superintendent, said he noticed that Asian graduates annually have some of the top grade point averages in his district, many of them after only recently immigrating to the United States and learning English.
“What we need to do is have our own American kids, born here, speaking the language from the time they’re born ... to get motivated about something other than their iPod,’’ said Driscoll, the Massachusetts official.
“There has to be a sense of urgency on behalf of everybody,’’ he said. “That includes, by the way, the kids.’’
Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report.