Tough course titles, weak test scores

More high school students are taking advanced classes, but test scores haven’t improved. What’s going on? Course title inflation, answers the New York Times.

Algebra II is sometimes just Algebra I. And College Preparatory Biology can be just Biology.

Thirteen percent of high school graduates completed a rigorous curriculum in 2009, up from 5 percent in 1990, a federal study of transcripts reported in April. But the testing trend lines are flat.

“There may be a ‘watering down’ of courses,” said Arnold A. Goldstein, a director at the National Center for Education Statistics.

Schools inflate course titles to help students satisfy tougher high school graduation requirements, researchers say. It looks good to have more students in high-level or Advanced Placement classes.

About 15 percent of eighth-grade math courses — with titles from remedial through “enriched” to Algebra I — use textbooks that cover less advanced material, a Michigan State study found.

In 2008, Dr. (William) Schmidt surveyed 30 high schools in Ohio and Michigan, finding 270 distinctly labeled math courses. In science, one district offered Basic Biology, BioScience, General Biology A and B — 10 biology courses in all.

“The titles didn’t reveal much at all about how advanced the course was,” he said.

As Advanced Placement enrollment has soared, so have failure rates. Arkansas sextupled the number of students taking AP exams; only 30 percent earn a passing grade of 3, 4 or 5. Some argue that students benefit from the challenge, even if they don’t do well enough to earn college credit.

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Comments

  1. cranberry says:

    The AP failure rate debate–isn’t that a glass half full/half empty sort of thing? From the times article: in 2000, 1.2 million exams, 36% received a 1 or 2. Thus, 432,000 students received a 1 or 2, and 768,000 students scored a 3 or above. In 2010, 3.1 million exams, 42.5% received a 1 or 2. 1,317,500 students received a 1 or 2, AND 1,782,500 scored a 3 or above.

    Yes, more students are scoring below 3, but more students are receiving a 3 or above. What of the 1,014,500 students who passed, who wouldn’t have been permitted to take AP 10 years ago? You could look at the same set of figures, and claim that “more than twice as many students are passing the AP.” In 2000, 64% passed. In 2010, 57.5% passed — but the pool of test takers was much larger.

    Do the passage rates vary by type of school?

  2. As with any system increasing the number of participants will also increase the number of passing and failing – data allocation and analysis must be sensative to the changes in demographics and number of participants.

  3. The push for advanced classes comes from two sources. The first is the apparent inability of the ed world to differentiate between correlation and causation. Way back in the 80s, it was discovered that kids who took 8th-grade algebra (typically offered only at honors level, for the top students) did better on measures of achievement than did other kids (what a surprise). Since then, the same relationship has been found for Latin, modern foreign languages, debate, Algebra II, AP/IB classes etc. The ed world remains oblivious to the fact that, when only prepared/motivated students are admitted to/select such classes, those taking the classes are significantly different (in ability, preparation and/or motivation) from other kids. They jump to the conclusion that those classes alone cause improved outsomes; hence the push for “all” to take them. The second source of the push is political; if only the prepared and motivated kids are allowed to take the classes, those classes will be primarily white and Asian; a politically unacceptable situation. We now have the situation of kids who are functionally illiterate and innumerate sitting in Algebra II/AP classes where they understand nothing and which admins/politicians say they must pass. Since grad rates must to improved, it’s a full-time scam.

  4. “Algebra II is sometimes just Algebra I. And College Preparatory Biology can be just Biology.”

    And sometimes, 12th grade English is really 9th grade English. And sometimes, Spanish I is just making tacos. And sometimes, well, it just goes on and on.

    “The first is the apparent inability of the ed world to differentiate between correlation and causation.”

    Good point, but you are assuming that the ed world cares about the difference. The ed world does not care because IT knows better than any empirical evidence.

    “We now have the situation of kids who are functionally illiterate and innumerate sitting in Algebra II/AP classes where they understand nothing and which admins/politicians say they must pass. Since grad rates must to improved, it’s a full-time scam.”

    And I have college students sitting in classes with 5th grade reading levels.

  5. I have college students sitting in classes with 5th grade reading levels.

    In a sane society, the teachers who passed these students in HS and the administrators who approved their diplomas would go to jail for fraud.

  6. CarolineSF says:

    Momof4 is correct, but the reference to the “ed world” doesn’t actually apply to educators but to those who drive education policy these days — which seems to be everyone BUT educators.

    The press is particularly chronically oblivious to the fact that correlation doesn’t equal causation — the concept flies far over the heads of way too many journalists (sorry to “blame the media,” but the blame is deserved in this case). Other opinion leaders and officials are similarly impaired, willfully or not.

    I don’t see where educators are even involved — they seem to have everything done *to* them, not *by* them.

  7. Certainly principals, who are definitely part of the “ed world”, are partly responsible for the push to put more kids in classes with advanced titles and pushing teachers to pass failing students to make themselved look good. I see it personally and hear about it from teacher friends in Montgomery County MD. Parents at one middle school were able to push back against the principal a couple of years ago who was forcing unready students into 8th grade algebra.

  8. Certainly principals, who are definitely part of the “ed world”, are partly responsible for the push to put more kids in classes with advanced titles and pushing teachers to pass failing students to make themselved look good.
    I agreed with you geena