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Mark Schneider is a veteran numbers guy who has spent a career crunching education data about things like post-college earnings, graduation rates and charter schools. He once served as the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, an agency that Schneider now oversees as the director of the Institute of Education Sciences, which is the research and data arm of the Department of Education. 

Every month or so – sometimes more frequently, sometimes less – Schneider pens a blog post about bureaucratic topics like the 2022 Principal Investigators Meeting or Update on the IES Use of ARP Funds. I admit, dear reader, they bore me. But Schneider grabbed my attention with this damning headline in March 2022:  “Education Runs on Lies.” It was an alarm bell about what is going on in U.S. high schools – even before the pandemic.

Schneider borrowed the vitriolic (and hyperbolic) phrase from Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education under former President Barack Obama. Duncan fretted that schools had dumbed down standards and were lying to parents that their children were ready for the college or the working world. Now Schneider, appointed by former President Donald Trump, is arguing exactly the same, based on a fresh March 2022 report of a government study of high school transcripts. 

This study found that in 2019, high schoolers were earning more course credits than ever and taking more rigorous courses, such as physics and calculus. Grade point averages climbed; the average GPA in the nation rose to 3.11 in 2019, up from 3.00 – a B – in 2009. Schneider summed it up like this: “More courses, more rigor, more A grades. All good!”

But maybe not so good. During this same time period, 12th grade achievement fell. The math scores of high school seniors dropped four points on the National Assessment of Education Progress, a highly regarded test that is administered to a group of students around the country and intended to represent the nation. The test score drop was even larger – five points – for students who had taken a more demanding curriculum. And despite all extra science classes that students sat through, science scores didn’t budge.

Four or five points may not sound like a lot, but on a national test that covers millions of students, a two-point difference in average test scores is big.  I’ve seen public officials fret and celebrate over smaller drops and jumps.

Schneider thinks that a lot of so-called rigorous high school classes are now terribly watered down. He pointed to an old 2005 course content study, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. It looked at the actual content and curriculum underneath course titles. Analysts concluded only 18 percent of honors algebra I courses and 33 percent of honors geometry courses actually used a rigorous curriculum. 

“What we found is that the titles and what was being advertised by the schools as an advanced course in these areas really did not pan out when we actually looked at what was being taught,” said NCES Commissioner Peggy Carr at a March 2022 presentation, where she referred to this study. 

NCES is planning to update this course content study in 2024 to see if course content has deteriorated further.

Schneider argues that the nation is pretending to increase science and math (so-called STEM) skills by putting high schoolers in courses with fancy titles. “Simply telling students who have not truly mastered STEM skills that they are “A students” who have finished a rigorous math and science curriculum is not the way to produce that workforce,” Schneider concludes. “If education runs on lies, this is one of the more pernicious lies around.”

I’m sympathetic with Schneider’s concerns. But it runs counter to progressive ideas about motivating low-income students to finish high school and go to college by placing them in difficult classes. My colleague, Sarah Butrymowicz, wrote about one of these many efforts in 2017. Philanthropic foundations financed programs in which high school students who would have been placed in remedial classes in the past were instead being pushed into courses that earn college credits. Researchers found promising results. If these rigorous classes – even if they are in name only – motivate students to stay in school and continue their education, is that such a bad thing? 

However, it is troubling that math achievement has actually deteriorated amid this progressive experiment, as it has been implemented nationwide. That’s a sign that students aren’t mastering foundational basics, like what 30 percent off means.  As a society, we need to decide if the tradeoff is worth it. Kids may learn less math, but gain self-confidence to go to college. I worry that too many of these young adults will get trapped in remedial classes in college, and drop out with debts. At some point, content matters. 

This story about high school achievement was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

Letters to the Editor

3 Letters

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  1. This comment refers to the piece about deteriorating high school course rigor. Having done detailed investigation and recoding of NCES’ college transcript data myself, I know how important accurate course names and classifications matter are to understanding the content of US schooling. I commend the research NCES continues to do in this area.

    Mark Schneider’s argument about the consequences of deteriorating rigor rests on two claims. One is that the Math courses students take in high school are necessary for success in the workforce; the second is that there are not enough students prepared for entry into so-called STEM fields of study.

    The first claim is not well-supported by the data we have. According my published analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics and OECD data, over 80 percent of US workers occupy jobs in which they need only basic arithmetic. And the proportion of workers reporting regular use of advanced math and statistics stands at around 6 percent.

    The second claim is subject to great scrutiny. For one thing, we have no clear definition of the STEM workforce. And the definition one adopts leads to wide variation in the projected number of STEM workers needed in the future. Some scholars in this field argue that the US already produces and imports more than enough workers to fill its needs in science and engineering.

    Your point about high school students getting caught in college remedial math is a real concern, and suggests that mathematics primarily invites consequence within the school system, not outside of it. Colleges need to adopt rigorously-tested alternatives to remediation. The most promising of these is the corequisite model, which places students assessed as needing remediation straight into college-level work. RCT studies of corequisite math show that students placed into these courses complete math courses at higher rates, complete degrees at higher rates, and earn more money after college. Corequisite students also showed higher levels of engagement in their math courses. This is not dumbing down, this is teaching the right content.

    This declining rigor argument seems much like the nearly 40-year old claims of “A Nation at Risk” – which also issued from a high school transcript study. High school courses should be properly named to reflect what they actually cover. But what coursework we need in high school (and college) is another matter. Mathematics can and should be taught in ways that reinforce the way people use it, not simply used as a set of demanding hurdles to overcome.

  2. More students are taking higher-level courses and average achievement (as measured by test scores of those taking the courses) has dropped. If you measure the average achievement of all students, including those not enrolled in the higher-level courses (so comparing all students to all students over time), what is the result?

    The Washington Post’s education guy has been using AP enrollment as a way to measure “great” high schools. So, schools enroll more students in AP courses, with the result that average AP scores decline. Same issue.

    High school grades are trending up years after college grades trended up for decades. Cause and effect?

    Helicopter parents want Suzie to be all A+ so she can get into Harvard. (fat chance!) High schools reward taking AP and honors classes with bonus points, so that a valedictorian might have a grade point of 4.7, whatever that may mean. 4.7 out of what?

    Here in Florida at least, end of course exams start in March so no child is left behind when it comes to access to computerized high-stakes tests.

    When all the rewards are for high test scores, rather than for learning, what else would you expect?

  3. This report on grade inflation and watered down coursework is a major concern, and raises larger issues on the need to modernize learning for students. Most of our education systems in this country are not set up to support young people in being fully prepared for life beyond high school, and traditional grading structures are flawed, rife with subjectivity, and mixed messages.

    It’s past time we moved from industrial, one-size-fits-all schooling models towards personalized and competency-based education systems, to ensure mastery of building knowledge and skills. We must reimagine education to give students the individual attention and supports they need to engage in rigorous, challenging learning experiences to succeed in life beyond K-12. We need to adopt systems of assessments that provide evidence of authentic student work and tell us when students have mastered concepts – not when they’ve reached a certain birthday or spent a certain amount of time sitting in a classroom.

    Traditional grading with bell curves, or extra credit added for non-academic work or behaviors, is not always a reliable reporting of achievement, often misleading parents and caregivers into believing that their children are making progress toward college and career readiness. In fact, Learning Heroes, a national survey of K-8 parents and guardians, showed that even during the pandemic, 92% of caregivers, regardless of race, income, and education levels, believed their child was at or above grade level in reading and math, when in reality, the number of students at grade level is actually closer to 37%. We can update assessment models and focus on competency-based grading to more accurately report on and certify student mastery of knowledge and skills, and provide timely feedback to educators and families on students’ progress in their learning. A focus on mastery means that success is the only option (with supports being embedded), and failure is simply part of the learning process.

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