Illinois Loop
Your guide to education in Illinois
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Education Issues in High School

    Most of the efforts of the Illinois Loop are focused upon K-8 schools. But many of the same bogus theories and dubious methods that dominate in grade school are found in high school as well.

    But high schools do not carry the full blame for educational failure. They cannot be held responsible for correcting all the problems of grade school. Despite this, high schools are exactly where some politicians are pointing fingers.

High Schools and Their Ill-Prepared Graduates

  • Illinois Students Not Up To Test Mark: ACT Scores Indicator Of College Readiness by Stephanie Banchero, Chicago Tribune, August 17, 2005. Excerpt: "If performance on the ACT college entrance exam is any indicator, this year's graduating Illinois high school seniors lack the academic skills necessary to pass basic college-level math, science and reading courses, according to data released Tuesday by the testing company. Of the 136,000 Illinois students who took the ACT, only 25 percent posted a science composite score high enough to indicate they are likely to succeed in a first-year college science course. Only 38 percent met the standard in math. About half did so in reading."

  • A quote from the above article, reminiscent of President Bush's complaint about schools that fail due to their "soft bigotry of low expectations":
    "...I think we are sometimes guilty of not teaching to the rigor of those courses. ... We sometimes lower the bar because we want to make sure everyone gets over it."
    -- Donald Pittman, Chicago Public Schools chief officer for high schools

  • Leaving "School" Out of High School by Niki Lefebvre, Education Next, Summer 2006. "I wasn't even keeping up with the other freshmen. [I was] dreading the research paper and the mountain of books and journal articles and notes and outlines that had littered my desk for weeks. I was just beginning my first semester of college and already knew I was unprepared. 'How did you do it in high school?' asked my roommate, a graduate of a New Mexico prep school. How did I do it in high school? I didn't. ... Even in my Advanced Placement courses I did not have to write research papers. My classes rarely required me to fit even an hour of homework into my afternoon schedule, and doing homework on the weekends was an anomaly at best. As I tried to settle in at college, I began to realize that high school had involved very little school. None of my assignments ever required much time or effort, nor did 'big' assignments occur frequently enough that I had to pare back my long list of after-school activities. Far more often than not, a 45-minute study period provided me with sufficient time to complete the day's assignments satisfactorily."

  • Ambition and Ability Don't Meet for High School Seniors, Study Says by Neal McCluskey, School Reform News, December 2005. "...the National Center for Education Statistics ... surveyed high school seniors, focusing on four areas: their proficiency in mathematics; their postsecondary educational expectations; the factors those planning to attend college deemed most important in choosing a school; and their values and life goals. ... On the positive side, a majority of seniors expected to complete at least a four-year degree after high school ... But while seniors reported high expectations, NCES found many do not possess the mathematics skills necessary to meet them. According to the report, 21 percent of the students surveyed could not perform simple operations using decimals, fractions, roots, and powers; 38 percent were incapable of "simple problem solving"; and 65 percent could not handle intermediate-level mathematical concepts. Only 4 percent exhibited mastery of "complex multi-step word problems and advanced mathematics."

  • What Happened to the 'Three Rs'? Employers, professors rate high school grads as computer whizzes, but just 'fair' or 'poor' on their writing, grammar, arithmetic , Public Agenda, March 5, 2002. "Employers and college professors by large majorities nationwide say public high schools are graduating students with just fair or poor skills in writing, grammar and basic math, and most do not consider a high school degree as any guarantee a student has mastered the basics. ... The results are contained in the fifth annual Reality Check study, a joint project by Public Agenda and Education Week to track the nation's progress in raising academic standards in the public schools. ... For the fifth year in a row, employers who hire young people right out of school and college professors who teach freshmen and sophomores said the public high school graduates they encounter had just "fair" or "poor" skills in:

    • Grammar and spelling (73 percent of employers and 74 percent of college professors);
    • The ability to write clearly (73 percent of employers, 75 percent of professors);
    • Basic math (63 percent of employers, 65 percent of professors)

    Employers and college professors also were not impressed with the attitudes high school graduates bring to the job or the classroom:

    • Young people were given fair or poor ratings for "work habits, such as being organized and on time" by 69 percent of employers and 74 percent of professors;
    • Students also were given low marks for "being motivated and conscientious" by 72 percent of employers and 58 percent of professors."

  • Study Finds High School Diploma Is Largely Meaningless: "Employers today consider high school diplomas only as proof that 18-year-olds attended school, according to a study released ... by the American Diploma Project, a consortium of three education-reform groups. The project's two-year review of education in five states found that more than half of high school graduates need remedial classes in college, and most who attend college never obtain a four-year degree. Employers rated high school graduates as 'fair' or 'poor' on basic abilities. High school exit exams required by nearly half the states fail to measure what matters to colleges and employers, the study concludes. Such exams 'generally assess 8th- or 9th-grade content.' ... Employers and postsecondary institutions 'all but ignore the diploma, knowing that it often serves as little more than a certificate of attendance,' the report charges."

  • Embedding College Readiness Indicators in High School Curriculum and Assets by Jennifer Dounay, Education Commission of the States, April 2006. "To help ensure that students are prepared for college-level work, a number of states embed college readiness indicators in curriculum and assessments. This policy brief presents how several states have implemented this practice -- often through legislation -- at the local, state and district levels."

  • Mixed Messages: Study Finds Inconsistent Relationship Between State High School Tests and University Success Standards by David Conley, director of the Standards for Success program at the University of Oregon. Researchers analyzed 35 state exams in English language arts and 31 in mathematics for: matches in categories of knowledge/skills tested in each subject area, depth of knowledge, range of knowledge and balance of representation. The findings: in math, no state's tests received an overall "A" for a high degree of alignment, and only three received this score in English.

  • Do Graduation Tests Measure Up? A Closer Look at State High School Exit Exams: Researchers from Achieve, Inc. analyzed exit exams in English and math in six states -- Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas. The study examined the content the tests assess and the grade level of that content; the complexity of each question and of the items altogether; "how well the exit tests measure what matters most to postsecondary education institutions and to employers in high-growth, high-performance industries"; and "what it takes for students to pass each state test and how those expectations compare across states." The evaluation concluded that the level of English and math tested is generally low compared to international standards -- the majority of reading questions were at international 8th- and 9th-grade levels and math questions were at 7th- or 8th-grade levels. None "of the tests adequately measures the full range of" college- and work- readiness benchmarks identified through the American Diploma Project.

  • What, Me Read? A literature professor discovers that his students exist in the fog of a post-literate world by Thomas Bertonneau, Ph.D., John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, January 15, 2009.
         "Since the mid-1980s, I have taught a standard survey of literature course to undergraduates in California, Michigan, and most recently upstate New York. ... Over the years, my experience has chronicled what I believe to be a broad retreat from genuine literacy into a new, orally based 'post-literacy' of emotion-drive mentality, egocentrism, 'presentism,' and logical obtuseness. This retreat will have serious consequences for our society. ...
         "Adults know what propels the descent: proliferating electronic media, video games, an ideologically inspired de-emphasis of rigorous learning at all levels of education, and a pervasive attitude of entitlement that students now absorb into their deficient souls the way babies drink nourishment from a mother's breast."
    Part Two

    Also see this section on our "College" page:
    Colleges Try to Cope With The Failures of K-12

But ... Are High Schools to Blame?

    "What do they do in the grammar schools?
    These kids can't put a sentence together."

    -- an English teacher at Chicago's Roosevelt High School

  • Need a Middle School Education? Go to College by Terrence Moore, Ph.D., March 2004. "Consider the armed forces. In any given action the military is held accountable to the mission. Military troops are made ready for the mission through constant training. The initial training a marine, soldier, sailor, or airman goes through is called 'basic training' or 'boot camp.' If this training is inferior, the whole system of military readiness crumbles. Can you imagine a U.S. Marine Corps boot camp that did not train recruits to march, to salute, to fire weapons and throw grenades, to read a map and compass, and to render first aid to a fallen comrade? ... Yet the failure to train our young people for the battles of life, battles they will face first in college and later on in the corporate world or in public service, has become commonplace."

  • "By the time students reach high school, it is too late to make things right. Students fail in high school because they lack the academic basics."
    The Education of William Gates by Andrew Wolf, June 23, 2006.
         "While the [Gates] foundation spends billions around the world promoting a variety of health initiatives, it is his effort to 'reform' America's high schools that has attracted the most attention. So it isn't surprising that Business Week devoted its cover story this week to what is increasingly being perceived as a faltering effort. ...
         "One essential point missed by Mr. Gates is that by the time students reach high school, it is too late to make things right. Students fail in high school because they lack the academic basics they need in order to do high school level work. There is a huge drop off in performance, nationwide, between fourth and eighth grade. This is the reason for the high school crisis. By the time Mr. Gates comes around with his medicine, the cow has long left the barn. ...
         "At the center of Mr. Gates's problems was his reliance on the establishment of school 'reformers.' What he didn't grasp is that it is the reformers who are the status quo in public education. They are the problem, not the solution. The core problems will not be solved by those who thrive on perpetual 'reform,' efforts that after a while exist only to maintain themselves.
         "As the Microsoft mogul heads into the 'semi-retirement' he announced last week, he would be well advised to take a close look at just where his money is going and seek out advice from those who haven't already failed at fixing our schools."

  • In reaction to public statements by Bill Gates on the "need" to focus on high schools for reform, one Looper comments, "I think Gates' comments are a typical Microsoft misdiagnosis of the problem -- fixing the symptoms of the problem and not the root cause."

  • It would have been hard to miss the flurry of news reports in March 2005 after Bill Gates lambasted America's high schools. But eminent education historian Diane Ravitch (who had dinner with our Illinois Loop group a few years ago) begs to differ:
         Failing the Wrong Grades by Diane Ravitch, New York Times, Op-Ed, March 15, 2005. Excerpts: "Everybody who is anybody seems to have decided that the American high school is responsible for the failings of American students. ... Let's slow down here. American education is famous for inspiring crusades, and the history of the 20th century is littered with the remains of of failed reform movements. This 21st century campaign will fall flat, too, unless the proponents are clear-headed about the nature of the problem and willing to rethink their proposed solutions. ... To understand why, you have to consider what the high schools are dealing with. When American students arrive as freshmen, nearly 70 percent are reading below grade level. Equally large numbers are ill prepared in mathematics, science and history. It is hardly fair to blame high schools for the poor skills of their entering students. If students start high school without the basic skills needed to read, write and solve mathematics problems, then the governors should focus on strengthening the standards of their states' junior high schools."

  • The same applies at the college level: It makes no sense to try to artificially "fix" the situation in colleges when the real problem is the failure of K-12. For more, see: Colleges Try to Cope With The Failures of K-12.

  • How Can Educators Stop Teens From Bailing Out On High School? Boost The Performance Of Dismal Middle Schools by Lance T. Izumi, director of education studies, Pacific Research Institute, June 10, 2006. "A University of Chicago study says that improvements in high school graduation rates may occur if students leave elementary school better prepared academically. ... To improve middle school and reduce high school dropout rates, policymakers should examine successful middle-school models, especially [among] charter schools."

  • Education reformer Richard G. Innes writes, "If Mr. Gates were to look at the grades where most high school dropouts occur, he probably would find the situation in Kentucky, for which I have excellent data, is replicated everywhere. Most Kentucky public school dropouts occur in the 9th grade. These students enter high school ill-prepared and never get beyond the first year. That offers strong evidence that the problem lies in lower grades. This isn't a high school phenomenon. I get the uneasy feeling that trying to 'fix' high schools may really be all about creating a new, watered down curriculum that will simply cover up the failures at the lower grades."

Grade Inflation

    See this section on grade inflation on our page about tests and assessment.

Course Title Inflation

  • Excerpt from a story in the Washington Post, March 5, 2007, reporting on a study of academic progress:
        "Experts also point out that the study based its definition of course rigor on titles and descriptions, not necessarily on the delivered content. Known as course-title inflation, that means a class might be called calculus but really teach only algebra. Experts say minority students are often disproportionately affected by such inflation. 'You see all the time that courses are being dumbed down even if they have tough-sounding titles,' said Erich Martel, a history teacher at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in the District."

  • In Many Classrooms, 'Honors' in Name Only: As High Schools Offer More Advanced Courses, Educators Fear Content Doesn't Always Earn the Label by Jay Mathews, Washington Post, September 19, 2006. "In an American education system full of plans for better high schools, more and more courses have impressive labels, such as 'honors,' 'advanced,' 'college prep' and 'Advanced Placement.' But many researchers and educators say the teaching often does not match the title.
         "'A company selling an orange-colored beverage under the label 'orange juice' can get in legal trouble if the beverage contains little or no actual juice,' said a February report from the National Center for Educational Accountability, based in Austin. 'But there are no consequences for giving credit for Algebra 2 to students who have learned little algebra.'
         "Grade inflation is a well-known issue. Many critics of public schools contend that students nowadays get better grades for less achievement than they used to. Experts also worry about courses that promise mastery in a subject but fail to follow through. Call it course-label inflation. ...
         "U.S. Education Department senior researcher Clifford Adelman ... said some high school transcripts apply the label 'pre-calculus' to any math course before calculus. Some students who had taken 'pre-calculus,' according to the transcripts he inspected, had skills so rudimentary that they were forced to take basic algebra in their first year of college. ... Michael Goldstein, founder of the MATCH Charter Public School in Boston, described the sort of dialogue that often produces courses that don't keep their promises in other schools: 'The principal tells the teacher, 'You're teaching algebra 2.' The teacher responds, 'But our tests show these kids haven't mastered one-fourth plus one-half, let alone algebra 1.' The principal responds, 'Well, we need to offer them algebra 2 because it helps on their college transcripts.''"

  • Test Scores at Odds With Rising High School Grades by Amit R. Paley Washington Post, February 23, 2007. "High school seniors are performing worse overall on some national tests than they did in the previous decade, even though they are receiving significantly higher grades and taking what seem to be more rigorous courses, according to government data released yesterday. ... 'We have our work cut out for us,' Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in a statement. 'If, in fact, our high school students are taking more challenging courses and earning higher grades, we should be seeing greater gains in test scores.' ... 'The core problem is that course titles don't really signal what is taught in the course and grades don't signal what a kid has learned,' said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a D.C.-based nonprofit group that supports No Child Left Behind. ... The potential for grade and course-title inflation is not confined to low-performing schools. Julie Greenberg, a math teacher at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, said she was under such pressure to raise grades that she used to keep two sets of books in her statistics class: one for the grades students deserved and one for the grades that appeared on report cards. 'If a teacher were to really grade students on their true level of mastery, there would be such extraordinary levels of failure that it would not be tolerated, so most teachers don't do that,' she said."

Academics in High School

  • A memorable sketch from Saturday Night Live, October 17, 1987, Steve Martin hosts a game show, "Common Knowledge" (transcript is available here):

  • The Myth of High-Stakes Testing by RiShawn Biddle, December 18, 2007. "For teachers unions and suburban school districts, the tests threaten to reduce their influence over school curricula and subject them to the kind of objective performance measurements that they loathe. So the teachers and bureaucrats are making hay over the supposedly dire consequences students face if they don't pass. Their sob story goes, in this new era of high-stakes testing, kids, especially those suffering from learning disabilities such as autism, will either eventually drop out of school or be "pushed out" by school districts attempting to game the system. In reality, the problem slices the other way. States with exit exams make it too easy for students to graduate without passing the tests. Just eight of the 26 states currently offering or rolling out exit exams require students to actually pass the tests in order to graduate, according to a report released last month by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based centrist think tank."

  • Students Say High Schools Let Them Down by Michael Janofsky, New York Times, July 16, 2005 "A large majority of high school students say their class work is not very difficult, and almost two-thirds say they would work harder if courses were more demanding or interesting, according to an online nationwide survey of teenagers conducted by the National Governors Association."

  • Edupundit Myopia by Will Fitzhugh, April 26, 2007. "Edupundits have chosen very complex subject matter for their investigations and reports [but] practically all of them fail to give any attention to the basic purpose of schools, which is to have students do academic work. Almost none of them seems inclined to look past the teacher to see if the students are, for instance, reading any nonfiction books or writing any term papers. ...
    "Of course there are exceptions, students whose teachers demand that they read history books and write research papers, and there are students who do that on their own, in independent studies, partly because they have become aware that they must meet more rigorous academic demands down the road, and they are determined to get themselves ready. But far too many of our high school students are waiting for someone else to set demanding academic standards, and when they don't, the students accept that, and get jobs, play sports, lead an active social life, spend hours a day on video games, and so forth. But after they slide through high school and emerge, they are mightily sorry they were not asked to do more and held to a higher standard for their own academic work."

  • Recommendations for Reforming the American High School: A Memorandum to the Governors of the Fifty States from the K-12 Committee of the National Association of Scholars (PDF) drafted by Sandra Stotsky, R. James Milgram, and Elizabeth Carson.

    Advanced Placement (AP)

  • ALARMING NEWS: In May 2005, the College Board, which sets standards for Advanced Placements classes, announced plans to "address the concern that AP courses require too much content coverage" by hiring education "experts" to apply "best practices" to AP design. We will add more information here as this startling story develops.

    Hillsdale Academy Reference Guide: High School

    The fiercely independent Hillsdale College of Michigan also has a K-12 academy that emphasizes very rich content taught using teacher-led, research-based methods. In some respects, the curriculum at Hillsdale is even more structured and more detailed than that of Core Knowledge. A key difference between the Hillsdale approach and Core Knowledge seems to be that Core Knowledge specifies content and allows teachers to use the methods that they find most effective for their classes and their own teaching styles. A terrific treasure at the Hillsdale website is the complete Hillsdale Academy Reference Guide which is be a wonderful resource for anyone planning or supplementing a K-8 or high school 9-12 curriculum. The guide includes detailed curriculum standards by grade and subject, with extensive reading lists and resources.

High School Rankings

  • Advanced Placement for All: The simple-minded logic of Newsweek's high-school rankings by David Skinner, Weekly Standard, June 6, 2005. This article starts off sounding like it's going to come down hard on Newsweek for Jay Mathews' infamous ranking of high schools by the single criterion of the percent of students taking AP classes, quoting a respected expert, "Any ranking system worth anything at all must have at its core student learning. And this one does not." But by the end, the article has several cautiously positive things to say about the ranking. They report, you decide!

High Schools and College Admission

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