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Taking Back America By Taking Back Our Schools

More students than ever are earning credits for advanced classes, according to a Department of Education study released in April. The Department's National Center for Education Statistics examined nearly 38,000 high school transcripts and found that the proportion of graduates completing rigorous coursework rose from 5% in 1990 to 13% in 2009.

Good news on the education front, you say? Not so fast. Despite taking more challenging-sounding coursework, 17-year-olds aren't scoring any higher on federal standardized tests than they did in 1973. SAT scores have flat-lined since 2000, offering further evidence that kids aren't learning more now.






















Why the disconnect? According to researchers, many course names are more rigorous than their actual content. It's the course-title equivalent of grade inflation. The new Algebra II is the old Algebra I; College Preparatory Chemistry used to be plain old Chemistry.

A researcher who has studied the problem in Texas compared the practice to a food marketer labeling a can of orange soda as orange juice. "Like the misleading drink labels, course titles may bear little relationship to what students have actually learned," said Lynn Mellor.

Mark Schneider, a vice president of the American Institutes for Research, said the divide between course titles and what students were learning became apparent a decade ago. Two national surveys showed that the proportion of high school seniors taking trigonometry, pre-calculus or calculus more than doubled between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. "Students were taking more rigorous-sounding courses, but there was no evidence they had mastered the content," said Schneider.

A 2008 survey conducted by William Schmidt of Michigan State University found 270 distinctly named math courses offered in 30 Ohio and Michigan high schools. The survey also looked at science classes and found that one district offered ten variations of biology courses including Basic Biology, BioScience, and General Biology A and B. "The titles didn't reveal much at all about how advanced the course was," said Schmidt.

Course-title inflation is easier to document in math and science classes, said researchers, but they suspect it is happening in English and other subjects too.

Researchers suggest several possible reasons for the course-title inflation trend. Administrators want to help students satisfy tougher high school graduation requirements. Parents want to believe their children are taking demanding coursework. Administrators look good when more students take ambitious-sounding classes.

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