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Outside editorial: Is school too easy-peasy?

Posted: July 31, 2012 - 12:00am

The following editorial appeared in the Baltimore Sun:

There is a common belief, particularly in the nation’s more affluent neighborhoods, that teenagers are swamped with homework and school-related commitments. Some would have you believe that U.S. students are working around the clock and at great risk to their health and well-being to deal with the daunting academic load.

But while that may be true for some, just how widespread is this phenomenon? According to a recent report, just the opposite is going on.

Using data collected from student questionnaires, a recent report from the Center for American Progress found that for many teens and preteens, school is simply too easy. Far from being overworked, they are hardly breaking a sweat in some of their most important subjects.

Take eighth grade. (Please.) According to biennial surveys administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, 51 percent of eighth-grade civics students and 57 percent of eighth-grade history students say their work is often or always too easy. Even math can be a breeze for at least one out of every five students — at least that’s what 12th-graders say.

And it’s not just a question of easy material. In many cases, students aren’t being asked to do much at school or home either.

Almost one-third of eighth-graders reported reading fewer than five pages a day either in school or from material assigned as homework. Nearly 40 percent of high school seniors say they have to write about something they’ve read at school rarely, or at least no more often than twice per month.

Maryland, so often praised for its overall K-12 school performance, is not immune from these concerns. How many Maryland fourth-graders say math work is too easy either often or almost always? That would be 38 percent, slightly above the national average. Maryland eighth-graders also scored above the national average on that question.

There are limits, of course, to how much one can surmise from the self-reporting of teens.

But the survey results do suggest that there is room for greater rigor in many public school classrooms, whether it’s elementary, middle or high school.

With so much attention focused on minimum standards, are schools providing sufficient challenge to students who are capable of exceeding them?

Offering advanced placement or gifted and talented programs can be helpful in this regard, but even within those classes, student capabilities are likely to vary, and what challenges one student might not require much effort from another.

Meanwhile, standardized tests often involve multiple choice or short-answer questions, and one has to wonder if teachers are choosing to mirror those requirements rather than challenge students to read and write at length or dive deeper into material that may not show up on the test.

There are few more important public policy goals than raising school performance.

Generally, Maryland has done well compared to most other states, but there remain too many school systems — Baltimore’s included — where student tests scores are nothing to brag about.

As the Center for American Progress report’s authors note, the problems revealed by the surveys tend to be worse for lower-income as well as black, Hispanic and Native American students. Such “opportunity gaps” are hardly surprising, and closing them should be the highest priority.

But for all students, white or minority, gifted or mainstream, we see no reason why so many youngsters enrolled in private or public schools alike should come home in the afternoon feeling like they haven’t been challenged or even necessarily engaged in schoolwork.

Better for schools to expect too much than too little from their pupils, whether age 8 or 18.

That doesn’t mean student life must be a grind but it doesn’t mean it should be a breeze either. When eighth-graders aren’t reading five pages a day at school or home, it’s clearly a lot closer to the latter than the former.

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