School Easy, Failing To Challenge Students, Survey Says

"Do schools challenge our students?"

No, says a paper published today by the progressive think tank Center of American Progress. More than half of 12th graders, for example, say civics and history are often or always too easy.

The analysis, by Ulrich Boser and Lindsay Rosenthal, found a disturbing disconnect between student engagement and test scores. Many students -- 21 percent of 12th graders and 37 percent of fourth graders -- reported that math classes were "too easy." But only 40 percent of fourth graders and 35 percent of eighth graders were deemed "proficient" on the National Assessment for Educational Progress math test. Boser and Rosenthal explain this disconnect by pointing to gaps between lessons and the test questions. "It's also possible that students do poorly on" the test "because they're not challenged in school," they wrote.

Boser and Rosenthal analyzed years of survey data collected by the U.S. Education Department's research arm. The surveys were conducted with the National Assessment for Educational Progress, a low-stakes standardized test administered to public and private school students that provides the only opportunity for comparing states' academic performance with each other. The survey's questions include, "Do you understand your teacher?" and "Do you find the subject matter too easy?"

"When you look at these questions, there are value judgments," Boser said in an interview. "But when you see most students say math work is too easy but are not doing math at grade level, that seems quite troubling."

School learning isn't as interactive as home learning, said Darren Draper, which may explain the disconnect some students feel. "Many go from making hundreds of decisions per day about their learning -- while at home, using their favorite technology -- to a cash-strapped, often irrelevant environment that forces them to raise their hand whenever they want to ask a question," said Draper, who oversees technology in the Canyons, Utah, school district.

"The current data don't allow for an analysis of why this is happening and far more research needs to be done to increase the understanding of what student perceptions tell you about their classroom experiences," the authors wrote.

Including students' perspectives on school change is a relatively new trend in education. "It's very easy in policy debates to push the levers you have at your disposal rather than find new ideas," Boser said. "Testing is easy to put your mind around. It's harder to think about how are we going to engage students? It's less tangible, it's a culture question, it's easy to ignore."

The Gates Foundation's Measuring Effective Teaching project, which has used tripod surveys to query more than 300,000 kids over a decade -- found small but significant ties between students' perceptions of teachers and teachers' ability to increase test scores. The tripod survey shows that successful teachers must instill "a love of learning" in students. A few school districts are now using such surveys to help measure teachers.

Vicki Davis, a private school teacher in Georgia who writes a popular blog called Cool Cat Teacher, suggested that the study's findings reflect policies that help low-performing students. "Our gifted programs are suffering ... with the mainstreaming efforts, which help the lower students come up, but effectively bridle the learning of the gifted students," Davis said. She said parents have told her they've moved kids out of test-driven schools "because the focus on tests is driving out learning."

The report concluded that teaching goals most states use called common core state standards may alleviate this gap. Philip Cummings, a private school teacher in Lakeland, Tenn., said he isn't as sure. "It felt like they were trying to support the Common Core, and it didn't seem to me that they were looking at factors besides the need for standardization," he said.

Either way, Boser said, the results of the survey don't line up with images of students weighed down by backpacks, unable to go to the movies because of unending homework. Only half of students in 12th grade reported they felt they were always or almost always learning in math class, and 72 percent of eighth grade science students said they aren't being taught technology.

"It's hard to look at this data and think that most students are being pushed hard," Boser said.