During the last 20 years—since high stakes testing began to take hold—public school curricula have undergone a massive transformation. Standards have pushed material that was once taught in high school down into the 3rd and 4th grade, and the amount of content teachers are expected to cover each year has increased steadily. The theory behind this trend appears to be that learning more content and learning it earlier will help students develop faster.
But is this true? Is there any evidence at all that learning more content and learning it earlier produces more rapid development? If so, I haven't seen it.
In fact, our evidence points to the opposite conclusion. Learning more and learning it earlier may actually be interfering with the development of critical life skills—like those required for making good decisions in real-life contexts. As the graph below makes clear, students in schools that emphasize covering required content do not develop as rapidly as students in schools that focus on fostering deep understanding—even though learning for understanding generally takes more time than learning something well enough to "pass the test."
What is worse, we're finding that the average student in schools with the greatest emphasis on covering required content appears to stop developing by the end of grade 10, with an average score of 10.1. This is the same score received by the average 6th grader in schools with the greatest emphasis on fostering deep understanding.
The graphs in this post are based on data from 17,755 LRJA assessments. The LRJA asks test-takers to respond to a complex real-life dilemma. They are prompted to explore questions about:
- finding, creating, and evaluating information and evidence,
- perspectives, persuasion, and conflict resolution,
- when and if it's possible to be certain, and
- the nature of facts, truth, and reality.
Students were in grades 4-12, and attended one or more of 56 schools in the United States and Canada.
The graphs shown above represent two groups of schools—those with students who received the highest scores on the LRJA and those with students who received the lowest scores. These schools differed from one another in two other ways. First, the highest performing schools were all private schools*. Most students in these schools came from upper middle SES (socio-economic status) homes. The lowest performing schools were all public schools primarily serving low SES inner city students.
The second way in which these schools differed was in the design of their curricula. The highest performing schools featured integrated curricula with a great deal of practice-based learning and a heavy emphasis on fostering understanding and real-world competence. All of the lowest performing schools featured standards-focused curricula with a strong emphasis on learning the facts, formulas, procedures, vocabulary, and rules targeted by state tests.
Based on the results of conventional standardized tests, we expected most of the differences between student performances on the LRJA in these two groups of schools to be explained by SES. But this was not the case. Private schools with more conventional curricula and high performing public schools serving middle and upper middle SES families did indeed outperform the low SES schools, but as shown in the graph below, by grade 12, their students were still about 2.5 years behind students in the highest performing schools. At best, SES explains only about 1/2 of the difference between the best and worst schools in our database. (For more on this, see the post, "Does a focus on deep understanding accelerate growth?")
By the way, the conventional standardized test scores of students in this middle group, despite their greater emphasis on covering content, were no better than the conventional standardized test scores of students in the high performing group. Focusing on deep understanding appears to help students develop faster without interfering with their ability to learn required content.
This will not be our last word on the subject. As we scale our K-12 assessments, we'll be able to paint an increasingly clear picture of the developmental impact of a variety of curricula.
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*None of these schools pre-selected their students based on test scores.
See a version of this article on Medium.