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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

When high hopes meet low expectations

Most students “meet the demands of their assignments” more than two-thirds of the time, yet demonstrate mastery of grade-level standards only 17 percent of the time, concludes TNTP’s new report, The Opportunity Myth. That’s because assignments are so easy: Few ask for grade-level work.

Most students don’t have access to grade-level assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement and teachers with high expectations, TNTP concludes, based on a study of four school districts (three urban, one rural) and a charter network.

TNTP followed almost 4,000 students for a school year, including collecting 30,000 in-the-moment student surveys using a technology that prompted students to answer a few questions at random times during or immediately after class. TNTP also surveyed nearly 260 teachers, conducted focus groups with teachers and administrators, observed nearly a thousand full-length lessons at all grade levels, and reviewed almost 5,000 assignments and more than 20,000 individual student work samples.

Nearly all students want to go to college: 70 percent of high schoolers have career goals that require at least a college degree, the study found. “While more than 80 percent of teachers supported standards for college readiness in theory, less than half had the expectation that their students could reach that bar.”

Yet we found classroom after classroom filled with A and B students whose big goals for their lives were slipping further away each day, unbeknownst to them and their families— not because they couldn’t learn what they needed to reach them, but because they were rarely given a real chance to try.

“Students of color, those from low-income families, English language learners, and students with mild to moderate disabilities” are less likely to get grade-appropriate assignments and strong instruction, the study concluded. Among above-average students, those “from low-income families spent about 30 percent less time on grade-appropriate assignments, compared to students from higher-income families.”

The weakest students improve the most when they’re challenged, engaged and taught well, TNTP found.

When students who started the year behind grade level had access to stronger instruction, for example, they closed gaps with their peers by six months; in classrooms with more grade-appropriate assignments, those gaps closed by more than seven months.

The study started with a question, writes TNTP CEO Dan Weisberg. “Why are so many students graduating from high school ill-prepared for college and career paths?”

More than half of students in the study earn A’s and B’s.

The study relies on subjective judgments on the quality of assignments and instruction, writes Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum.

In the most specific example provided in the report, one eighth-grade assignment asked a student to fill in the missing vowels from the word “habitat” after reading a short passage; in contrast, another required students to write a lengthy essay based on a memoir of one of the students to desegregate the all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.

He also cites research showing that “observers tend to give unfairly high ratings to classrooms with more high-achieving students.”

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