Gas station without pumps

2011 May 16

High school course title inflation

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 06:12
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The New York Times published an article by Sam Dillon about three weeks ago: As H.S. Course Titles Become Inflated, Test Scores Fail to Follow.  The basic observation is a simple one: the number of high-school students taking courses with impressive titles (like Advanced Placement) has gone up greatly over the last 20 years, but performance on standardized tests has remained flat.

There are many possible explanations:

  • The number taking rigorous courses is too small to have any effect on the average.  This was probably the case in 1990, when only about 5% of high school graduates had completed a “rigorous” curriculum.  But by 2009, when 13% had done so, there should have been some movement of the mean.
  • Courses have stayed about the same, but grade inflation has caused students who previously would have failed to now pass. There has undoubtedly been a lot of grade inflation, but the failure rate for AP courses has never been high, so there wasn’t much room for changing the number of students passing the course just by tweaking the grading.
  • Administrators and teachers have arbitrarily decided to put fancier names on their courses, as a marketing gesture to improve the chances of their students getting into college, without actually changing the courses.  This is the rather cynical view that Sam Dillon seems to favor.  There is certainly some truth to it, but I’m not convinced that many teachers would have gone along with it (I have less faith in the integrity of administrators and textbook publishers).
  • Advanced courses have been watered down to match the larger fraction of students attempting them.  This is consistent with my description of memes colliding—teachers need to teach the students they have, not the students they ought to have, so attempts to push more students into advanced classes results in the advanced classes becoming less advanced.

I favor the last explanation: that teachers and administrators, seeing that students taking advanced classes do better in college admissions and in college, have pushed more students to take advanced courses, with the inevitable result that those courses became less advanced.  It is a classic case of confusing correlation with causality: smarter, better-prepared, harder-working students are more likely to take advanced courses and are more likely to do well in college admissions and college.  This doesn’t mean that having weaker students take the advanced courses will make them do better.

What has happened is that the intervention that used to be effective for educating the top 5% of high-school students is no longer available, since it is has been replaced by a something supposedly suitable for the top 15%.  The growth of enrollment in advanced courses has paradoxically reduced the educational options for the top students.

Some of the changes that the enrollment growth in advanced classes entails include a greater emphasis on rote memory and drill (generally not needed by the top 5%), more review of forgotten material from previous courses (hence less time on new material), and a generally slower pace of learning with a higher busy work load.

AP exams have grown even faster than courses, with 1.2 million in 2000 and 3.1 million in 2010.  The failure rate (scores of 1 or 2) has gone up from 36.4% in 2000 to 42.5 % in 2010, but the number passing has risen (760 thousand to 1.78 million), so the growth has not all been at the bottom.

Bruce Orr, the principal of a high school that is sending large number of students to take (and fail) the AP tests, is quoted as saying “Just being in that rigorous course environment does these kids a world of good.”  Frankly, I’m dubious that setting kids up to fail the AP tests is doing them much good, and it is certainly harming the somewhat smaller number who could have passed the tests if they had been given a course that was really at the right level, rather than one watered down to match the level of students not ready for college-level work yet.


  1. That “rigorous course environment” does not seem to have helped. What I see in the public school is the parents wanting the child in the “advanced” class as a status symbol. It really is not that important to the parents if the kid is able to do the work. My wife teaches two seventh grade math classes, advanced and regular. About half of her advanced kids were placed in the class because of parents telling the administration that is where they want their child. She is failing about a quarter of the class and another quarter is in the “C” range. Parents do not want to listen to the advice of teachers as to what academic level to place their kid. My wife has also been forced to water the advanced class down in order to not flunk half the class. Administrators panic when that happens and even though the administration caused the problem it is the teachers fault for failing the kids.

    Comment by Garth — 2011 May 16 @ 08:25 | Reply

  2. Our experience is that the selection criteria for advanced courses is flawed. Teacher rec plus grades is 3/4 of the selection criteria, which results in advanced courses filled with children of politically influential parents plus teachers’ children. (Grades here are 1/3 participation, 1/3 hw completion, 1/3 test/quizzes)

    My high-schooler qualified for JHU-CTY’s AP courses…but can’t get a seat in Honors English much less AP at his high school since he is low on the political totem pole and the school won’t open more sections. 8th Algebra and Earth Science – both honors track here — are well-taught, but both classes use a nonstandard grading scale that is unavailable to students in nonhonors/nonaccel courses that involves substantial extra credit plus tests being graded on a curve. Over half of students that take 8th algebra will not make it to 10th Alg II..they must take a “Bridge” course at some point as they can’t pass the state’s end of year exam despite their seemingly good grades in the high 80s and the support of the private tutor.

    Comment by lgm — 2011 May 16 @ 16:50 | Reply

  3. The local community college teaches some concurrent classes on the high school campuses of our local urban school district. The principals who go this route chose concurrent classes over AP because of a track record of students with high grades and low AP scores. The interpretation that I’d heard is that the whole math sequence was watered down — students were really doing Alg I in Alg II and the pre-calc course was really Alg II, etc.

    Of course, the concurrent teachers perhaps have it easier than the high school teachers. The regular concurrent requirements still hold, even for courses taught on the high school campus. There’s no getting around the ACT criteria. It may not be the fairest system for people who don’t test well, but the required scores aren’t super high and are the same used at the college for just-graduated students who attend.

    Comment by Jo in OKC — 2011 May 17 @ 06:25 | Reply

  4. […] Mr. Mathews has a magical belief that simply exposing students to “rigorous courses” transforms them into well-educated students, whether or not they are capable of the work or learn anything in the courses.  He has led an AP-for-everyone movement that has resulted in substantial watering down of AP courses, to the point where students who could have benefited from a college-level course in high school can no longer trust the AP label on a course to mean that (see High school course title inflation). […]

    Pingback by Jay Mathews gets it wrong again « Gas station without pumps — 2011 May 22 @ 11:37 | Reply

  5. Great post. These kids end up at college and don’t understand that dividing by zero is wrong. And so much more…

    There’s one additional thing I’ve heard of that you didn’t mention. Some high schools are now offering non-AP Calculus courses. It would seem that the kids and parents get to take pride in a “Calculus” enrollment without having their self-esteem shattered by a low exam score.

    Comment by Lou Tafisk — 2011 July 8 @ 00:04 | Reply

    • I don’t see anything inherently wrong with a non-AP calculus course, just as I don’t see anything wrong with a non-AP biology course or non-AP history class. Calculus can be taught at a less-than-college level, and it is more honest to have such a course not have the AP label than to mislabel it as many schools do. (Any school that has less than an 80% pass rate on their AP courses is probably mislabeling them.)

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 July 8 @ 05:36 | Reply

      • In theory, I see your point. In practice, college teachers have to pick up the mess. When students take a non-AP biology or history class, they have no illusions that they will have to take a more in-depth course in college. When students take non-AP foreign language courses, they can still test out of a semester or two in college. When students take non-AP calculus, they get nothing… but the high school course can interfere with learning in the college course.

        Comment by Lou Tafisk — 2011 July 8 @ 11:19 | Reply

        • I took a calculus class in high school, and it didn’t interfere with my retaking it in college. I don’t buy the argument that half a course is worse than none, particularly if the course is appropriately labeled.

          My son’s high school offers 4 calculus classes:
          intor to calculus AB, calculus AB, intro to calculus BC, calculus BC. The intro courses do not carry the bonus GPA for honors courses.

          While the system is confusing (thanks to the stupid nomenclature of AP calculus, which is hardly the high school’s fault), I see nothing wrong with them having slower courses for the slower students.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 July 8 @ 11:45 | Reply

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