High school students in the United States have been taking more challenging courses in recent years, but academic achievement has been stagnant. At the heart of the matter is the quality of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Some courses tend to be more challenging in name than in practice.
To improve the consistency and rigor of high school instruction, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) partnered with ACT, Inc. on a pilot project in three states: Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania.
ACT trained 98 teachers in 18 high schools on how to use state-of-the-art curriculum units and new instructional methods that were integrated with a system of assessments.
The NGA Center and ACT have published a report detailing the pilot project's methodology and results, entitled NGA/ACT Pilot Project: Increasing Course Rigor—Final Report.
A companion document to the report is the NGA Center's issue brief, Policies to Improve Instruction and Learning in High Schools, which summarizes the project findings and suggests three new directions for state policy.
Summary of Results
Results of the pilot project strongly indicate that growth in student achievement occurs when high school courses are well aligned to academic standards. For example, when geometry teachers who participated in the project moved into closer alignment with content standards and with each other's curricula, their students gained almost one-half of a point on the mathematics assessment, which is better than the improvement shown by 75 percent of schools in a given year.
Pennsylvania schools (which were also engaged in a complementary high school reform effort called Project 720) saw gains in English language arts, geometry, and biology. Pennsylvania students had an average gain of 0.87 of a point on the English, mathematics, and science assessments, which is better than the improvement shown by 92 percent of schools in a typical year. The growth of one participating school was 2 points on a 36-point scale—more than double the improvement shown by the nation's best high schools in a typical year.
These results suggest that states should consider implementing three policies to increase the consistency and rigor of high school courses:
- Ensure that high school courses are well aligned to challenging academic standards and that course expectations are more consistent across teachers and schools.
- Include end-of-course exams in a comprehensive assessment system. Such systems can signal to students what it means to be ready for college entry and success.
- Provide teachers with extended professional development to learn how to integrate new instructional methods and new assessment practices.
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