Study: In Testing Era, Curriculum’s Aren’t Narrowing

There are (legitimate) concerns that student testing requirements will result in a “narrowing” of school curriculum. All math and ELA (and now a Science) and not much room for the humanities or arts. As Mark Schneider explains, the National Center for Education Statistics has released their High School Transcript Study and found that isn’t happening. As Schneider summarizes:

The transcript study shows a long-term trend in which high school students are taking more courses and more academic ones than ever before—a trend that shows no sign of abating. In short, the high school curriculum, far from narrowing, is getting deeper and broader.
For example, the number of high school credits graduates took has increased by 15 percent since 1990 (up from 23.6 in 1990 to 27.2 in 2009). This increase was driven by an emphasis on academics. Between 1990 and 2009, high school graduates increased their enrollment in “core academic” courses (English, math, science, and social studies) by 17 percent and in “other academic” courses (fine arts, foreign languages, and computer-related studies) by almost 50 percent. In contrast, students took fewer “other” courses (such as vocational education and personal hygiene)….Since 2000, students took one additional credit in “core academic” courses, an additional 0.5 credits in “other academic” courses, and continued to take fewer “other” courses.

I’m not sure if it’s a good thing that fewer students are taking vocational courses, given their practical, “real job” focus (and the growing belief that we’re sending too many kids to college to effectively pay tuition, party and figure out that what they really want to do is work with their hands after all). But, be that as it may:

A second important finding in the study is that a more rigorous curriculum pays off with higher NAEP science and math scores. Students who took a rigorous curricula outscored students who took a below-standard curriculum by more than 40 scale points in math and science. Clearly, this is correlational and not causal. The study shows that the relationship between curriculum and performance has persistent race and ethnicity patterns. At any level of curriculum, black and Hispanic students lag, often considerably, behind whites and Asian/Pacific Islanders (chart, page 42).

The last is obviously a cause of concern (though I suspect the problems are less race-based and more economic, as usually seems to be the case). Despite the positive findings, Schneider points to areas of improvement.

While there has been progress in getting more students to take a more rigorous course of study, far too few students are taking the most rigorous curriculum. Only about 13 percent of students take the “rigorous” curriculum, up from 10 percent in 2000 and 5 percent in 1990, but still a low number. More encouraging: 46 percent take the midlevel curriculum and the percentage of students with that curriculum continues to expand.
But perhaps most disturbing is that high schools are failing to exploit emerging opportunities for students to increase their course-taking. Many critics argue that our school year and school day are too short—and clearly the evidence from the transcript study shows that exposure to more courses is associated with higher NAEP scores. The transcript study explores two ways in which students could take more courses: summer school and online education. In both cases, our high schools are dropping the ball.

The problem is that these two opportunities are utilized for remediation more than for adding value to education. Using on-line resources to supplement existing course work is a hot topic in education reform circles (just Google “personlized” or “digital” learning and have at it).

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