There are two views of education in America. One is that we are raising standards — especially in math — beyond the reach of many students and losing them as a result. The second perspective is that most classes are a cakewalk, leaving kids bored and unchallenged.
A new analysis by the Center for American Progress supports the latter. The analysis was based on student questionnaires given to students taking a respected federal benchmark test called NAEP or the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The analysis provides state data, and Georgia exceeds the national average in students reporting math is too easy. In Georgia, 40 percent of fourth graders say math was easy, compared to 37 percent nationally. Yet, we have more students saying that they feel they are always learning in math class.
And while nationally 73 percent of 8th graders say they are not taught about engineering and technology, the rate is only 70 percent in Georgia.
Of course, the question becomes why Georgia does not fare better on NAEP math, where, despite a rise in the 2011 results in fourth grade, we still trail the national average. Georgia’s average score in 2011 (238) was two points lower than that of the nation’s average score (240). In eighth grade, the average math score was 278, demonstrating no change from 2009. Georgia’s average score was five points lower than that of the nation’s average score (283)
Unfortunately, we exceed the national average by 1 percentage point in 8th graders reporting that they read fewer than five pages per day. The national average is 30 percent, and the Georgia average is 31. On the other hand, that means that nearly seven out of 10 Georgia 8th graders report reading five or more pages a day.
According to the report authors Ulrich Boser and Lindsay Rosenthal:
You might think that the nation’s teenagers are drowning in schoolwork. Images of sullen students buried in textbooks often grace the covers of popular parenting magazines, while well-heeled suburban teenagers often complain they have to work the hours of a corporate lawyer in order to finish their school projects and homework assignments.
But when we recently examined a federal survey of students in elementary and high schools around the country, we found the opposite: Many students are not being challenged in school.
Consider, for instance, that 37 percent of fourth-graders say that their math work is too easy. More than a third of high-school seniors report that they hardly ever write about what they read in class. In a competitive global economy where the mastery of science is increasingly crucial, 72 percent of eighth-grade science students say they aren’t being taught engineering and technology, according to our analysis of a federal database.
Here is the official summary of the analysis:
Students don’t have access to key science and technology learning opportunities. For today’s students, being prepared for college and the modern workforce means having access to high-quality curriculum materials in critical subject areas like math and science. But our analysis found that most teenagers say their schools don’t provide important learning opportunities in science and technology. For instance, 72 percent of eighth-grade science students say they are not taught about engineering and technology.
Too many students don’t understand their teacher’s questions and report that they are not learning during class. Nationwide, less than two-thirds of middle school math students report that they feel like they are always or almost always learning in math class. Similarly, just under 50 percent of 12th-grade math students said they feel like they are always or almost always learning in their math class.
Students also often report difficulty understanding their teacher’s questions. Twenty-five percent of middle school math students report that they sometimes or hardly ever understand what their teacher asks.
Thirty-six percent of 12th-graders report they sometimes or hardly ever clearly understand what their math teacher asks. All students, regardless of their family background, should have access to a high-quality education. But our analysis of student feedback found that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have the same access to robust learning opportunities.
Consider, for instance, that 74 percent of higher- income fourth-grade students report that they often or always understand what their science teacher is saying, compared with just 56 percent of lower-income fourth-grade students. Among middle school students, 80 percent of higher-income middle-school students report often or always understanding what teachers ask in math class. In contrast, just 70 percent of low-income students report often or always understanding their math teacher. Meanwhile, 66 percent of higher-income 12th-graders reported they often or always understand what their math teacher is saying, compared with 60 percent of low-income students.
There are also racial gaps in some areas. For instance, in the fourth-grade 73 percent of white students and 72 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander students said that they clearly understand what their science teacher talks about. In contrast, only 56 percent of black; 54 percent of Hispanic; and 58 percent of Native American and Alaska Native students say they do. In middle school, 83 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander students and 79 percent of white eighth-grade students report that they clearly understand what their math teacher is saying. But only 67 percent of black students; 70 percent of Hispanic students; 69 percent of Native American and Alaska Native students report understanding their teacher.
To be clear, there were not opportunity gaps in every area that we looked at. We examined disaggregated data for all of the relevant background questions and we reported the results only for questions in which there were significant gaps.
Our analysis leads us to the following recommendations:
- Policymakers must continue to push for higher, more challenging standards. To ensure that all students are ready for the global economy, we need to expect more of our students and schools they attend. The Common Core standards are one way to help states and districts make progress on this issue, but far more needs to be done.
- Students need more rigorous learning opportunities, and our nation needs to figure out ways to provide all students with the education that they deserve. Too many students report not being engaged in class. They don’t understand what their teachers are teaching them and they feel like they are not learning. Our nation can—and should—do more.
- Researchers and educators should continue to develop student surveys. We hope this report launches additional research into the use of student surveys. Researchers such as Ronald Ferguson, senior lecturer in education and public policy and director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, have made significant advances which we describe below. But we need to know much more about these tools, and what they reveal about the student experience.
Over the past few years, many states have engaged in promising reforms that address the issues we raise in this report. But our findings suggest we need to do far more to improve the learning experience for all students. We hope that the interactive state-by-state maps available on our website—together with the findings and recommendations in the following pages—will inspire engagement with students’ perspectives in the search to find new and better ways to provide students with the knowledge and skills that they need to succeed.
Here is an excerpt from a USA Today story on the analysis: (This is only an excerpt. Please the read the entire story.)
Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the center who co-wrote the report, said the data challenge the “school-as-pressure-cooker” image found in recent movies such as Race to Nowhere. Although those kids certainly exist at one end of the academic spectrum, Boser said, “the broad swath of American students are not as engaged as much in their schoolwork.”
Robert Pondiscio of the Core Knowledge Foundation, a Virginia non-profit that pushes for more rigorous academics, says the pressure-cooker environment applies only to a “small, rarefied set” of high school students. The notion that “every American kid is going home with a backpack loaded with 70 pounds of books — that’s not happening.”
The data suggest that many kids simply aren’t pushed academically: Only one in five eighth-graders read more than 20 pages a day, either in school or for homework. Most report that they read far less. “It’s fairly safe to say that potentially high-achieving kids are probably not as challenged as they could be or ought to be,” Boser said.
Gladis Kersaint, a math education professor at the University of South Florida and a board member of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said she’s not surprised by the findings. “I think we underestimate students,” she said.
Florida State University English education professor Shelbie Witte, a former classroom teacher, said standardized tests limit material teachers can cover. “The curriculum is just void of critical thinking, creative thinking,” she said. As a result, students are “probably bored, and when they’re bored, they think the classes are easy.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog