US students take harder classes, do better: study

By Wendell Marsh, Reuters

WASHINGTON–The typical American high school student is taking harder courses and performing better in them, according to a new study released on Wednesday. The 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress High School Transcript Study underlines the importance of rigorous curriculum, particularly with higher-level math and science courses, as a key to greater achievement in high school. The average grade point average increased to 3.0 in 2009 from 2.68 in 1990, but appeared to be leveling out. The average number of credits representing 120 hours of class time increased to 27.2 credits in 2009 from 26.8 in 2005.

“These findings demonstrate a clear connection between course rigor and achievement, and they argue strongly for students to take a more challenging curriculum in our high schools,” said David Driscoll, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the report. “Rigor in high school is closely linked to success afterward, and this study confirms that we need higher secondary standards across the board,” he said. “In particular, we need stronger requirements in math and science.” The study’s conclusions echo an Educational Testing Service study last week that found a correlation between students who took Algebra II in high school and went on to hold top tier jobs. Even that study’s authors were slow to say that there was a relationship between advanced courses and professional success. A national effort to require more rigorous math courses has started and U.S. President Barack Obama’s has called for an emphasis on education to keep America competitive. The new study sampled 37,700 high school graduates in 2009 and their transcripts from 740 public and private schools, evaluating the types of classes they took and how they fared in terms of grade point average and assessments. Since 1990 when the study was first conducted, students have steadily increased the number of credits in core academic courses (English, mathematics, science, and social studies) and other academic courses such as foreign languages, fine arts, and computer related studies. More graduates than ever, 59 percent, are graduating with mid-level and rigorous curricula which means they have at least four credits of English; three credits of social studies; three or four mathematics courses including at least geometry, algebra I or II or pre-calculus; three credits of science including biology, chemistry, and physics; and one to three years of a foreign language. Evidence also suggests that taking more rigorous math earlier yields higher performance. Students who took algebra I before high school and started their secondary education with geometry scored 31 points higher on the math assessment than those who took algebra in their first year of high school. Ethnic and gender disparities persist, particularly in science, but they are diminishing. All racial and ethnic groups are completing more challenging courses. Male graduates generally scored higher average mathematics and science scores than females at the same curriculum level. Female graduates continue to have higher GPAs than their male counterparts. Females averaged a 3.10 GPA while males averaged 2.90.