High schoolers are taking tougher classes, getting better grades, and know less than students did a decade ago

Thursday, April 14th, 2022

High schoolers are taking tougher classes, getting better grades, and know less than students did a decade ago:

In the four decades since the U.S. National Commission on Excellence in Education published its landmark report, “A Nation at Risk,” there’s been a sustained effort to push high schoolers to take more rigorous courses, with the sensible expectation that tougher classes will mean more learning. Well, consider that experiment half-successful. According to the recently released 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress High School Transcript Study, students are taking more rigorous classes in science and math and they are getting better grades in those classes. The problem? They actually know less than students did a decade ago.

During the decade between 2009 and 2019, the share of 12th graders who took a rigorous or moderately rigorous slate of courses rose from 60 to 63 percent, and the average GPA of high school graduates climbed from a 3.0 to a 3.11—an all-time high. So far, so good. When we turn to how 12th graders actually fared on NAEP (the “nation’s report card”), though, we see that science scores stayed the same and that math scores actually fell by about 3 percent.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen counterintuitive results like these. In 2009, Mark Schneider, now the commissioner of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, found that decades of efforts to boost the number of students taking higher-level math classes had led to the dilution of those very classes. In particular, Schneider noted that, between 1990 and 2005, average math GPAs rose, as did the average number of math credits completed by high-school graduates. Furthermore, while only one-third of students completed algebra II in 1978, more than half did in 2008. And yet, despite all of this, NAEP scores for students in algebra I, geometry, and algebra II declined between 1978 and 2008.

In other words, more students were taking more advanced math and getting better grades—and yet our students knew less in 2008 than they did 30 years earlier. Schneider termed this phenomenon the “delusion of rigor” though it could equally well could be termed the “dilution of rigor.”


It’s actually not that hard to figure out what’s going on: Schools have a lot of incentives to get students into more rigorous-sounding classes. Many states require that more students take such classes; equity-oriented advocates urge schools to enroll more low-income and minority students in advanced-sounding classes; and, perhaps most significantly, parents want schools to ensure that their children can enroll in courses that look good on college applications (this pressure only increases as colleges put less weight on the SAT or ACT). In short, there are lots of reasons why students are taking more high-level courses that have nothing to do with whether students are actually prepared for those courses.

But the problem isn’t just that schools are incentivized to stick students into classes they aren’t ready for. The problem is also that schools are incentivized to make those classes easier. Even as more students take more challenging courses, school and system leaders are under a lot of pressure to ensure that graduation rates keep rising. This puts pressure on schools and teachers to soften classes by simplifying instruction, shortening units, skipping difficult concepts, or just slapping an impressive-sounding name on a class that doesn’t deserve it.


  1. James says:

    That’s called dysgenics. Demographics is destiny, Democracy is census, a Country its people.

    Also, let’s not forget that education is a myth. We should be living is a wonderful world by now, with virtually everyone highly educated, with their graduations, the wonders of the internet, free knowledge, etc

    But no, society has never been closer to ruin, and you know why? Because education doesn’t matter. It never mattered.

    What mattered always was what is real: Mineral Resources, Arable Land, High Quality Elites, Energy Resources, a Reliable Labour Force, Good Engineering.

  2. Ezra says:

    Plus activities too. They want the students to show activities on the application for the “best” schools. The rounded persons and not the “grind”.

    Ever see these various tests given around say 1900 to gauge the proficiency for a high school student to graduate on the basis of their knowledge in addition to completing grade level? Most college students could not pass.

  3. Contaminated NEET says:

    Burn all schools to the ground.
    Salt the earth.
    Send the teachers to labor camps.
    Execute the administrators.
    Liberate the children.

    Lawfully, and with due process, of course.

  4. Roo_ster says:

    I saw this first-hand for the one semester our child went to public high school. Geometry was a requirement to graduate, so the geometry course was so content-free as to be nigh useless. AS WAS EVERY OTHER CLASS REQUIRED FOR GRADUATION. True rigor was found only in courses well beyond the minimum requirement. In our child’s case, 1 in 7 classes was worth the time.

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