Are Education Reforms Causing a Decline in Student Achievement?

Posted by Liz Dwyer

physics class
Education reforms are designed to boost student achievement, but what if they are producing the exact opposite result? According to research published in the scholarly journal Physics Education, entering freshman at England's University of Bristol are less prepared for college level work than they were nearly 40 years ago—despite decades of efforts to improve secondary education.

A generation ago, Bristol's physics faculty began to worry that students weren't coming in the door with the math and science knowledge they needed to be successful. So in 1975, they began administering a "prior knowledge test"—designed to reveal areas of strengths and weakness—to incoming freshmen. Faculty used the PKT results to adjust curriculum and instruction and connect students with tutors that would help them get up to speed.

Students have taken that same test every year since. The average remained steady at 75 percent until 1992, when scores dropped to about 50 percent, where they've remained for the past 20 years despite increase in average high school grades and test scores among Bristol students. The number of British students who achieved an A grade on the math A-level exam jumped from 10 percent in 1986 to 45.2 percent in 2009. During the same time period, the number of students scoring an A or B in high school physics increased from 25 percent to 52.8 percent.

The jump in A-level test scores should have caused PKT scores to rise, but current students are performing worse on questions that require multiple-step mathematical manipulations and having a harder time recalling information that they weren’t tested on recently. The professors believe that reforms rolled out in the mid-1980s to boost student achievement have actually made high school material less rigorous. The A-level test has become more general, meaning that the impressive increases are largely due to score inflation.

Here in the United States, No Child Left Behind's emphasis on scores of "proficient" or higher on standardized tests has caused similar score inflation. The Bristol research also points to other trends, including pressure on educators to teach to the test so that students achieve high scores. Teachers often eliminate project-based learning and open-ended questions, choosing to instead train students to regurgitate facts and formulas and bubble in multiple choice responses. The emphasis on tests also makes students more likely to cram for exams at the last minute instead of retaining information over the long haul. In addition, a shortage of qualified math and science teachers means more students are taught by educators that lack in-depth knowledge of the subject.

The irony is that the United States and Britain both need more students to excel in math and science and go to college, but the Bristol results show that education reforms aimed at boosting test scores aren't producing students who can do college-level work. It's no wonder that a quarter of American college students need remedial classes.

The Bristol researchers say college faculty have to "adapt our methods to allow for the changes in preparedness of the incoming students" by giving students plenty of opportunities to review concepts and develop and practice higher-order math and science skills. If we want to ensure incoming freshman graduate, faculty on this side of the pond will have to do the same.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user COD Newsroom