The nation's high school students are earning more college credits on their path to graduation, but steady improvements in grade-point average have slowed in recent years, according to a major new survey from the National Center for Education Statistics.
The NCES released its 2009 Nation's Report Card on Wednesday, with test scores and other information gathered from 610 public schools and 130 private schools across the country. About 37,700 high school graduates were sampled for the report, the first such look at student performance and academic offerings since 2005.
The study found that the average high school graduate earns three more credits than in 1990. Students also are taking more "rigorous" classes.
For example, more students are enrolled in algebra and other challenging courses earlier, allowing them more time to focus on advanced work such as calculus later in their high school career. The same holds true in other subject areas, such as science, according to the report.
Over the past 20 years, the average GPA of a high school student has risen from 2.68 to 3.0, but that growth virtually stopped six years ago. From 2005 to 2009, GPAs "did not change significantly," according to the report.
Despite students taking more difficult classes to prepare themselves for college, there is still a "systemic failure" in many areas of public education, said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group.
"It is very clear we aren't making enough progress," she said Wednesday during a conference call with reporters and educators to discuss the report.
One problem, Ms. Haycock said, is that some rural schools sometimes don't have enough high-performing students to justify a more advanced class curriculum, sometimes setting up a situation in which schools think they must "choose between access and excellence," possibly lowering class standards to accommodate more students.
She said that idea "is dead wrong" and schools must, despite their size, set up classes that challenge the brightest minds and prepare them for college.
Henry Kranendonk, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board and a mathematics curriculum specialist in Wisconsin, said some schools in rural America are forced to bus students to other districts, where more rigorous classes are being offered.
"Schools find it hard to justify [offering such classes], especially when cuts have to be made," Mr. Kranendonk said Wednesday.
The report also breaks down performance by gender and race. Female students earn more credits in math and science, though males are closing that gap, according to the report. However, males in 2009 had higher test scores in mathematics and science than females in the same curriculum level.
Twenty-nine percent of Asian/Pacific Islander graduates in 2009 completed a "rigorous" curriculum, the toughest set of classes as defined by the report. Fourteen percent of white graduates completed the rigorous curriculum, compared to 6 percent and 8 percent for black and Hispanic students, respectively.
As Congress begins crafting an overhaul to the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, the scholars behind the NCES report said it isn't their job to suggest policy, but only to provide the best data.
"Policymakers want to have access to this data," said Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of the assessment division at NCES.
The NCES, a part of the Department of Education, is the primary federal data-gathering agency on education trends in the United States and internationally.
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Ben Wolfgang is a national reporter for The Washington Times. Before coming to the Times, he spent four years as a political reporter in Pennsylvania. His focus is on education and science policy. Ben lives in southeast D.C. and has played guitar in several bands while still in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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