ERIC Identifier: ED332930
Publication Date: 1991-04-00
Author: Patrick, John J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science
Education Bloomington IN.
Student Achievement in Core Subjects of the School
Curriculum. ERIC Digest.
In February 1990, the President and state governors proclaimed a set
of six national education goals to prompt profound improvements in schools
and student achievement by the year 2000. These six goals reflect widely
held concerns that most Americans have not been receiving the kind of education
they need to meet the challenges of twenty-first century life. This Digest
addresses one of the six national goals: "By the year 2000, American students
will leave grades four, eight, and twelve having demonstrated competency
in challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science,
history, and geography; and every school in America will ensure that all
students learn to use their minds well, so that they may be prepared for
responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in
our modern economy."
DEFICIENCIES IN STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT
During the 1970s and 1980s, the National Assessment of Educational Progress
(NAEP) issued several reports revealing that a majority of students are
NOT developing intellectual capacities necessary for democratic citizenship,
lifelong learning, and productive employment in the economic system (Mullis,
Owen, and Phillips 1990).
Most students seem to develop basic skills, which involve low-level
cognition. However, few students, only five to eight percent of our 17-year-olds,
demonstrate ability to solve multiple-step problems, synthesize data, read
analytically, and think critically. Furthermore, performance on tasks requiring
high-level cognition has declined since the early 1970s.
Most 17-year-olds have revealed serious gaps in their knowledge of core
academic subjects. For example, in a summary of findings from twenty years
of NAEP, Mullis, Owen, and Phillips (1990, 9) report that "only small proportions
of students appear to develop specialized knowledge needed to address science-based
problems, and the pattern of falling behind begins in elementary school."
A similar pattern of deficiency in knowledge achievement is revealed by
the NAEP studies of mathematics, history, literature, geography, and civics.
Less than 10 percent of 17-year-old students seem to have developed both
an understanding of key ideas in these core subjects and the ability to
apply these ideas to completion of tasks that require high-level cognition
(Mullis, Owen, and Phillips 1990, 29). An especially disturbing finding
is that high school students did "significantly less well" in civics in
the 1988 assessment than their 1982 counterparts (NAEP 1990, 13). Large
numbers of students appear to lack knowledge and skills usually associated
with responsible citizenship in a constitutional democracy.
The United States ranks near the bottom among economically developed
countries on international assessments of students' knowledge of mathematics
and science. The gap in achievement between American students and their
counterparts in other countries increases as students move through the
grades in school. Fifth-grade students in the United States score near
the median among their counterparts in the international assessments; eighth-grade
students fall markedly below the median; and twelfth-grade students rank
near the bottom in comparison to students from the other countries (Darling-Hammond
American respondents also ranked near the bottom in a recent international
assessment of geographical knowledge (Salter 1990, 8). These results are
consistent with various other reports of geographic illiteracy among large
numbers of American students (Stoltman 1990, 39-46).
If by the year 2000 American students are to leave school "having demonstrated
competency in challenging subject matter"--the core subjects of the school
curriculum--then large improvements in teaching and learning must be accomplished.
The current levels of student achievement fall far short of the standard
implied by the national education goal.
FACTORS ASSOCIATED WITH HIGHER LEVELS OF STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT
The various NAEP surveys of achievement in the 1980s included information
on background variables related to education. These data can be related
to student performances on the NAEP instruments to reveal factors that
are associated with higher levels of student achievement. For example,
better performances in the NAEP surveys of achievement have been associated
with the following factors: high educational attainment of parents, a home
environment where reading and discussions of ideas are valued, limited
television viewing, significant amounts of time spent on homework assignments,
and a stable family structure.
The NAEP reports also suggest relationships between systematic, substantial,
and stimulating exposure to core subjects and higher scores on tests of
achievement in these academic disciplines. Students who reported more opportunities
to study key topics and ideas in core subjects made higher scores on the
NAEP tests of achievement. Further, students who reported an early start
in studying core subjects, through substantial exposure to these content
areas in elementary school, tended to perform better in the NAEP surveys.
Another factor associated with higher achievement was active learning.
Students who said that their teachers required them to interpret and apply
knowledge to the completion of tasks tended to score much higher on these
assessments than did respondents who reported that their lessons were limited
mostly to passive reception of knowledge through lectures and textbooks.
For example, students in civics classes who reported participation in mock
trials or simulated congressional hearings tended to perform at a higher
level on the assessment of knowledge in civics than did students who were
not involved in these kinds of active learning experiences (NAEP 1990,
A final factor associated with higher achievement levels in the NAEP
surveys was use of electronic technology in teaching and learning the core
subjects. For example, students with access to computers for problem solving
tended to achieve a higher proficiency in mathematics than those who did
not use computers.
HOW TO IMPROVE STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT IN CORE SUBJECTS
Several widely accepted ideas about what can be done to improve student
achievement are presented in the following short list. These ideas are
prominent examples, among many others, in the growing literature on reform
and restructuring of education in schools.
* Increase the quantity and quality of challenging subject matter that
all students are required to study in elementary and secondary schools,
and encourage more students to pursue advanced coursework in the core subjects
(e.g., English, mathematics, science, history, geography, and civics).
* Increase the amount of time in which all students, at all levels of
schooling, are systematically engaged in studying and learning the core
* Provide regular opportunities for in-depth investigations of key topics
and problems as an alternative to typical superficial surveys of subject
* Emphasize active learning, thinking and doing in response to challenging
assignments, in contrast to passive reception of knowledge transmitted
via lectures and textbooks.
* Develop cognitive skills and processes, such as writing, by frequent
and systematic practice that involves teaching and learning of underlying
processes, such as the dynamics of written composition.
* Use multiple resources and media for teaching and learning--such as
electronic technology, primary documents, classic works of literature,
and science laboratories--instead of relying upon textbooks as the primary
or exclusive tool of instruction.
* Establish high expectations for student performance based on the assumption
that virtually all students can learn at high levels.
* Create a school climate that is conducive to student achievement through
the exercise of strong instructional leadership and maintenance of a safe,
stable educational environment.
* Involve parents in the process of education as monitors of homework
assignments, encouragers of academic achievement, and reinforcers of school
* Develop instruments for assessing student achievement that require
performance of high-level cognitive skills and processes--the application
of knowledge to complex
problems and issues--instead of testing that emphasizes recall of discrete
THE CONSEQUENCES OF IMPROVED STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT
Attainment of the national educational goal on student achievement and
intellectual development is associated with the intertwined consequences
of preparation of students for (1) responsible citizenship in their constitutional
democracy, (2) lifelong learning, and (3) productive employment in the
complex and global economy of the twenty-first century.
More than 200 years ago, the Founders of the United States recognized
the relationship of education to responsible citizenship in a free government
based upon popular sovereignty. This critical connection between liberty
and learning will be even more important in the future, because the complexities
of civic affairs and public issues in the twenty-first century will greatly
exceed those of earlier eras.
Preparation for a complex and dynamic future will require citizens with
the will and the capacity to learn new ideas and techniques to cope with
unforeseen problems. Those who have developed high-order cognitive capacities
in their youth will be most equipped to facilely and fruitfully pursue
more education to meet novel challenges.
Finally, enjoyment of democratic citizenship has always been linked
to economic well being. Unlike the past, however, most jobs in the worldwide
economy of the future will require high-level cognitive capacities to operate
"high-tech" equipment in the acquisition, organization, and application
of information for the solution of complex problems. Therefore, if we Americans
would be successful in the global economic competition of the next century,
we must greatly improve the quality of education in our schools.
The United States cannot maintain its constitutional democracy or its
economic well being unless all students greatly improve their levels of
achievement in the core subjects and development of intellectual capacities.
"The current levels of student achievement are unacceptably low for our
country's needs and aspirations and for the personal goals of its citizens"
(Mullis, Owen, and Phillips 1990, 29). Therefore, much effective effort
must be undertaken immediately and persistently to substantially improve
the teaching and learning of core subjects in the school curriculum, because
we are "a nation at risk."
REFERENCES AND ERIC RESOURCES
The following list of resources includes references used to prepare
this Digest. The items followed by an ED number are in the ERIC system.
They are available in microfiche and paper copies from the ERIC Document
Reproduction Service (EDRS). For information about prices, contact EDRS,
7420 Fullerton Road, Suite 110, Springfield, Virginia 22153-2852; telephone
numbers are (703) 440-1400 and (800) 443-3742. Entries followed by an EJ
number are annotated monthly in CURRENT INDEX TO JOURNALS IN EDUCATION
(CIJE), which is available in most libraries. EJ documents are not available
through EDRS. However, they can be located in the journal section of most
libraries by using the bibliographic information provided below.
Applebee, Arthur N., Judith A. Langer, and Ina V. S. Mullis. Crossroads
in American Education. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1989.
ED 309 178.
Bennett, William J. American Education: Making It Work. Washington,
DC: U.S. Department of Education, 1988. ED 289 959.
Callahan, William T., Jr., and Ronald A. Banaszak, editors. Citizenship
for the 21st Century. Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social
Science Education, 1990.
Comer, James P. "Home, School, and Academic Learning." In: Access to
Knowledge: An Agenda for Our Nation's Schools, John I. Goodlad and Pamela
Keating, editors, New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1990, 23-42.
ED 305 407.
Darling-Hammond, Linda. "Achieving Our Goals: Superficial or Structural
Reforms?" Phi Delta Kappan 72 (December 1990): 286-295.
Doyle, W. "Effective Secondary Classroom Practices." In R. M. J. Kyle,
editor, Reaching for Excellence: An Effective Schools Sourcebook. Washington,
DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1985. ED 257 837.
Mullis, Ina V. S., Eugene H. Owen, and Gary W. Phillips. America's Challenge:
Accelerating Academic Achievement. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service,
National Assessment of Educational Progress. The Civics Report Card.
Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1990. ED 315 376.
Ravitch, Diane, and Chester E. Finn, Jr. What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?
A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature. New
York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1986.
Salter, Christopher L. Missing the Magic Carpet: The Real Significance
of Geographic Ignorance. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1990.
Stoltman, Joseph P. Geography Education for Citizenship. Bloomington,
IN: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education, 1990.
ED 322 081.
Task Force on Education. Educating America: State Strategies for Achieving
the National Education Goals. Washington, DC: National Governors' Association,
U.S. Department of Education. What Works: Research about Teaching and
Learning. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 1986.