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Are Schools Challenging Our Students?

A new report from the Center for American Progress uses student surveys to paint a picture of the state of American education in this country. The results? Not encouraging.
 
 
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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.

These findings come at a key time. Researchers increasingly believe that student surveys can provide important insights into a teacher’s effectiveness. When the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released findings from their Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project in 2011, they found that student feedback was a far better predictor of a teacher’s performance than more traditional indicators of success such as whether a teacher had a master’s degree or not. The mounting evidence on the importance of student surveys has also been shaping policy at the state and local level, and a variety of groups dedicated to the improvement of teaching—such as the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit that works to advance policies and practices to ensure effective teaching in every classroom—have been incorporating student surveys into their teacher evaluation and certification process.

Given the significance of this growing body of research on student surveys, we examined one of the richest sources of national student survey data and conducted an analysis of the background surveys of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Known as the Nation’s Report Card, these assessments are administered every two years by the National Center for Education Statistics. We looked specifically at the student questionnaire, which collects student-reported information on demographics and classroom experiences.

In reviewing the data, we examined a number of issues that track current debates over education policy and research. Given the recent debates over academic standards, for instance, we looked closely at issues of rigor and student expectations. Do students think that they are being challenged enough? Do teachers engage students in deep learning opportunities? We were also interested in issues of access since students provide an important, classroom-eye view of the resources that are available to them. Are all students being given access to the types of learning opportunities that they need to be prepared for college and the modern workplace? Are those resources distributed fairly among different types of students and schools?

Among our findings:

  • Many schools are not challenging students and large percentages of students report that their school work is “too easy.” If students are going to succeed in the competitive global economy, they need to be exposed to a rigorous curriculum. But many students believe their class work is too easy. Twenty-nine percent of eighth-grade math students nationwide, for instance, report that their math work is often or always too easy. In some states like Virginia, nearly a third of middle-school students reported their work was often or always too easy.

    This finding was consistent across grades and subject matter. We found that 51 percent of eighth-grade civics students and 57 percent of eighth-grade history students report that their work is often or always too easy. Elementary school students also revealed that they aren’t being challenged by their math work—37 percent of fourth-grade students reported that their math work is often or always too easy. Among high school students, 21 percent of 12th-graders said their math work was often or always too easy, while 56 percent and 55 percent respectively found their civics and history work often or always too easy.

  • Many students are not engaged in rigorous learning activities. Almost a third of eighth-grade students report reading fewer than five pages a day either in school or for homework. That’s below what many experts recommend for students in middle school. Eighth-grade students across the country also report that they rarely write lengthy answers to reading questions on tests: approximately one-third of students write long answers on reading tests twice per year or less.

The issues are similar at the high school-level. Thirty-nine percent of 12th-grade students, for example, say that they hardly ever or only once or twice a month write about what they read in class. Nearly one-third said they write long answers on reading tests two times a year or less. Moreover, almost one-third of 12th-grade reading students say they rarely identify main themes of a passage when reading, and almost 20 percent said they never or hardly ever summarize a passage.