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Study Hall: How to determine the rigor of kids' schools

Thursday - 7/12/2012, 11:48am  ET

AP: 900e5fff-dace-4b1a-89a6-4345816980f2
Fuller suggests parents engage their students by asking questions that go beyond ''what did you do in school today?'' This can help determine if their child is being challenged in school, and how to ensure their academics are rigorous. (AP)

WASHINGTON - In the D.C. area, students commonly load up on Advanced Placement courses and shoot for admission into Ivy League schools.

However, the educational standard that accompanies affluent regional counties such as Montgomery, Fairfax and Prince George's seemingly conflicts with a new study from Center for American Progress that suggests kids aren't being challenged inside or outside the classroom.

Some believe this apparent contrast may not be quite so stark.

The data and analysis of the report doesn't support the conclusions that were reached, says Associate Professor Ed Fuller at the Penn State University College of Education.

"I'm not necessarily arguing that they're incorrect," he says, adding there isn't enough evidence to suggest kids are not being challenged. The study used student feedback and surveys of students in fourth and eighth grades, as well as high school students.

"You have to be really, really careful when you're using student survey data," says Fuller. "It has to be substantiated with different pieces of evidence so that we really understand what students are saying."

Parents shouldn't be alarmed by another finding in the study, Fuller says, that students report classes are too easy. Specifically, 37 percent of fourth graders reported their math classes were often or always "too easy" and 57 percent of eighth graders reported their civics classes weren't challenging. Others reported they had little reading to do in or out of class.

Fuller cites the work of a colleague, Jerry LeTendre, who found that the amount of work assigned isn't associated with better student performance until the later grades of high school.

"Just the level of homework doesn't tell you much. I know a lot of parents think 'The more homework the better,' but that's not necessarily borne out by research."

But Kris Amundson with Education Sector, a nonpartisan think tank, says the report does spotlight some important issues.

"You get the sense that two things are going on," Amundson says. "The kids who are pushed into high powered classes are doing just fine.

"But the rest of the kids, we just don't ask enough of them," she says.

Amundson says the report from the Center for American Progress doesn't suggest that schools are failing students, but that the rigor that many school districts are striving for is still a work in progress.

"What is certainly clear is we're going to have to raise the standards," says Amundson. She beleves educators can't rely on standardized testing alone.

"We don't need to ask students just to fill in the bubble. We do need to ask them to write. We need them to show us that they can solve complicated math questions, that they can think, that they can reason," says Amundson.

Fuller suggests parents engage their students by asking questions that go beyond "what did you do in school today?" This can help determine if their child is being challenged in school, and how to ensure their academics are rigorous.

Students should be asked to explain what they're learning, and be allowed to be the teacher. That way, parents get a much better picture of how engaged children are and where they may be having trouble, Fuller says.

However, instead of being a homework check, it should be a chance for parents and children to explore together with the child as the expert.

The full American Progress report can be viewed at amer icanprogress.org.

WTOP's Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow Kate and WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)