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Proof points: Education official sounds alarm bell about high school classes

Transcript study suggests rampant grade inflation and watered down coursework

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. 

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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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