Schneider: Inside the New Data That Suggest American Education Still ‘Runs on ‘Lies’

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Mark Schneider is the commissioner of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Services. He published the below remarks March 23 at IES.Ed.Gov:

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. (Read Linda Jacobson’s summary of America’s “academic mismatch” right here)

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:

— High school graduates are earning more credits, especially in academic subjects. At the time of the last transcript study in 2009, high school graduates had, on average, accumulated 27.2 Carnegie units. This increased to 28.1 in the current study. Most of this gain was attributable to an increase in academic courses.

— Grade point averages are climbing. The average GPA was 3.11 in 2019—up from 3.00 in 2009.

Graduates are completing more rigorous curriculum levels. NAEP uses a classificatory scheme to rate the overall rigor of the curriculum a student takes into four levels—below standard, standard, midlevel, and rigorous—depending on the number of Carnegie units a student has earned across English, mathematics, science, social studies, and world languages. The percentage of students who completed a standard or midlevel curriculum in 2019 increased by 4 percentage points compared to 2009. In contrast, the percent of students who completed a below standard curriculum dropped from 23 percent in 2009 to 16 percent in 2019.

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.

— Student assessment scores are not increasing. Compared with 2009, the 2019 NAEP science scores have not changed and the 2019 NAEP mathematics scores actually declined for high school graduates.

— Math scores declined for graduates who completed a midlevel or rigorous curriculum.

— Science scores are unchanged across curriculum levels.

— Students completing the most common midlevel curriculum scored in the NAEP Basic range in both mathematics and science in 2019.

— Students with a 4.0 GPA in advanced science have an average score barely within the NAEP Proficient range.

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.

As always, feel free to contact me: mark.schneider@ed.gov

Mark Schneider is director of the Institute of Education Sciences at the United States Department of Education. Before assuming that role, he was a vice president and Institute Fellow at the American Institutes for Research and the president of College Measures. He previously served as the U.S. commissioner of education statistics from 2005 to 2008 and is a distinguished professor emeritus of political science at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

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