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Brookings Papers on Education Policy 2001 (2001) 267-345

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The Role of End-of-Course Exams and Minimum Competency Exams in Standards-Based Reforms

John H. Bishop, Ferran Mane, Michael Bishop, and Joan Moriarty

[Comment by Richard Murnane]
[Comment by Laurence Steinberg]

Educational reformers and most of the American public believe that most teachers ask too little of their pupils. These low expectations, they believe, result in watered-down curricula and a tolerance of mediocre teaching and inappropriate student behavior. The result is that the prophecy of low achievement becomes self-fulfilling.

Although research has shown that learning gains are substantially larger when students take more demanding courses, only a minority of students enroll in these courses. 1 There are several reasons for this. Guidance counselors in many schools allow only a select few into the most challenging courses. While most schools give students and parents the authority to overturn counselor recommendations, many families are unaware they have that power or are intimidated by the counselor's prediction of failure in the tougher class. As one student put it: "African-American parents, they settle for less, not knowing they can get more for their students." 2

In part the problem is ignorance. Students appear to be unaware of just how important courses such as algebra and geometry are for getting into and completing college. Even though 80 percent of tenth graders in 1988 expected to go to college, and 53 percent aspired to a professional or technical job, only 20 percent of eighth graders in 1989 thought they would need geometry and only 24 percent said they would need algebra "to qualify for [their] first choice job." 3 [End Page 267]

A second source of the problem is that most students prefer courses that have the reputation of being fun and not requiring much work to get a good grade. In the 1987 Longitudinal Survey of American Youth, 62 percent of tenth graders agreed with the statement, "I don't like to do any more school work than I have to." 4 Many parents support their children's preference for easier courses. Even in wealthy communities, they often demand that their child switch to courses in which good grades are easier to get. As one guidance counselor described:

A lot of . . . parents were in a "feel good" mode. "If my kids are not happy, I'm not happy." . . . Probably . . . 25 percent . . . were going for top colleges. They were pushing their kids hard. The rest--75 percent (I'm guessing at the numbers)--said "No, that's too hard, they don't have to do that." . . . If they [the students] felt it was too tough, they [the parents] would back off. I had to hold people in classes, hold the parents back. [I would say] "Let the kid get C's. It's OK. Then they'll get C+'s and then B's." [But they would demand,] "No! I want my kid out of that class!" 5

Teachers are aware of student preferences and adjust their style of teaching and their homework assignments with an eye to maintaining enrollment levels. Guidance counselors, students, and parents avoid rigorous courses largely because the rewards for the extra work are small for most students. While selective colleges evaluate grades in the light of course demands, many colleges have, historically, not factored the rigor of high school courses into their admissions decisions. Trying to counteract this problem, college admissions officers have been telling students that they are expected to take the most rigorous courses offered by their school. This effort has been partly successful. More students are taking chemistry, physics, and advanced mathematics. But apparently many students have not gotten the message and still think taking easy courses is a good strategy. One student told a reporter:

My counselor wanted me to take Regents history and I did for a while. But it was pretty hard and the teacher moved fast. I switched to the other...