The title of this blog is taken from the opening of Arne Duncan's 2018 book How Schools Work. This was not a new theme for Duncan. In 2010, he said: "As a country we've dummied down standards. We've reduced them due to political pressure and, we've actually been lying to children and parents telling them they're ready when they're not . . . " As a reminder, Duncan was Secretary of Education under President Obama from 2009 through 2015—not a "usual suspect" for such a damning criticism of America's schools.
On Wednesday, March 16, the latest results from the recent High School Transcript Study were released. Unfortunately, they support Secretary Duncan's charge that schools routinely mislead their students.
The NAEP High School Transcript Study periodically gathers detailed information about the courses that American high school students take, including information on the number of academic courses taken, the level of those courses (for example, algebra, pre-calculus, calculus), and the grades students are awarded. But perhaps the most important contribution of NAEP to the study of transcripts is that it also administers high quality assessments of what students know and can do in a variety of fields, including science and math.
There are many data points in the just-released high school transcript study that, if they were true reflections of reality, should lead us all to celebrate the success of our students. Here are a few:
More courses, more rigor, more A grades. All good!
But here's where Duncan's warning about lies comes to mind: despite all this seeming progress, here's the far grimmer bottom line regarding student performance.
The evidence from the most recent transcript study shows a disconnect between what courses high school graduates took (seemingly more and more rigorous ones) and their performance on NAEP science and math assessments. We see "inflation" in course grades and course titles but stagnation in student performance. NCES has not conducted a recent, more detailed study on the delivered curriculum—but a 2005 NCES study helps to explain the disconnect. That study explored the actual content and level of challenge of high school algebra I and geometry courses in public schools across the nation. Among the many findings showing that the delivered curriculum is often a far cry from the rigorous-sounding titles that appear in course catalogs is the fact that only 18 percent of honors algebra I courses and 33 percent of honors geometry courses used a rigorous curriculum. In short, many students, even when told they were taking a rigorous and academic-oriented curriculum, were not being given the tools to be fully successful in algebra or geometry.
We need more students learning demanding math and science skills. Without that foundation, we will never have a large, diverse, and strong STEM workforce—a precondition for the U.S. economy to prosper. 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.
If education runs on lies, this is one of the more pernicious lies around.
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