photo credit: grisha_21 via photopin cc

photo credit: grisha_​21 via photopin cc

ACT, the organization that produces one of the two major college entrance exams in the United States, has just reported that taking more math and science courses has little or no effect on student achievement in those subjects. In a report with the slightly click-​baity title, “Missing the Mark: Students Gain Little from Mandating Extra Math and Science Courses,” they described a study in Illinois which from 2008 to 2013 required students to take more math and science courses to qualify for graduation.

Media reporting on this are, of course, skimming the broad results and ignoring the finer details of the report, leaving readers to potentially assume that the inverse is true: that taking fewer math and science courses is better (or at least as good) as taking more.

The study mentions that in prior research, students who take more STEM courses tend to perform better on tests of science and math. It also points out, though, that those students typically have voluntarily opted to take more courses, indicating an interest and motivation. So in this current study they looked specifically at lower-​achieving students.

A key point is mentioned almost in passing, however. ACT says that even after the new state-​mandated graduation requirements went into effect, some districts still did not have 100% of students meeting the requirement. “It is possible that the requirements are not enforced in practice or are satisfied with credits for repeating courses or for foundational or business math courses” (p. 2).

So at risk of oversimplifying in a different direction, the best conclusion you can draw from this is not that requiring more courses is ineffective, it’s that requiring more of the same is ineffective. No mention was made of improving the quality of instruction or course material, though “rigor” is used a few times in the report.

There are too many attempts to “fix” education that rely on changing one surface element, such as graduation requirements, or teacher evaluations, without attending to the deep issues. Low achieving students tend to enter school at a disadvantage, and rarely make up the gap. Schools tend to treat those students by giving them more of the same: longer hours of drill and practice and rote mechanical instruction. Students who don’t succeed in a course get to do it over again the next year, whether it’s Algebra I or all of second grade. It brings to mind the songs I used to sing at summer camp: “Second verse, same as the first, just a little bit faster and a little bit worse!”

What do you think? Is this study (and the media reporting on it) brilliant? Or are they insane? And what are you going to do this school year to start changing the conversation where you live?

[This post originally appeared August 8, 2014 at Brilliant or Insane. To comment, join the conversation there.]