High schoolers lacking in math, science courses

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American students are not taking enough science and math courses in preparation for college or the work force, say education officials responding to yesterday’s release of a federal study of high school transcripts.

“What is scary to me is that more than 50 percent of our students are not taking any science in the 12th grade,” said Sharif Shakrani, deputy executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board. The board administers federally required standardized tests under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Mr. Shakrani attended a forum to discuss the report titled “The High School Transcript Study: A Decade of Change in Curricula and Achievement, 1990-2000.”

“Even people going into the information-technology field need to know physics concepts and mathematics beyond decimals, so they know binary systems and how computers operate,” Mr. Shakrani said. “Increasing math and science means increasing jobs.”

The report, issued by the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics, was based on a study of transcripts from more than 20,000 graduating high school seniors from 277 public and private high schools.

The report shows, overall, that high school graduates took some tougher courses and raised their overall grade point averages during the past decade, but scores on standardized tests that measure achievement have stayed relatively flat since 1995.

“Does it reflect progress or grade inflation?” Katy Harvey, principal of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, asked during the forum.

Mrs. Harvey said her school has doubled the number of students taking honors and advanced-placement courses during the past five years, but she noted “a huge disconnect” between students’ rising grades and their learning achievement.

“Eighty percent of students enrolled in a course, such as biology, passed the course, but only 30 percent passed the [Montgomery County] exam,” she said.

Some students see their senior year “as one last chance to influence the [college] admissions officer, while others see it as a chance to slack off,” Mrs. Harvey said.

“Some students are simply going through the motions. The challenge is for more students to see value in a complete and rigorous program. We have not found a way to make the last year of high school totally meaningful to all students. We still have a way to go.”

Despite improvements in school standards during the past decade, 60 percent of employers still rate the basic skills of high school graduates only “fair or poor,” said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve Inc., a nonprofit group that helps states raise academic standards and achievement.

“The majority is not prepared for what they face. We have by design a K-12 system in this country where students are proficient but not prepared,” Mr. Cohen said.

States need more rigorous requirements, he said.

“Just 35 states require four years of grade-level English in high school. Only 12 states require Algebra 2. Most states are not even close to requiring what is necessary.”

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