Revisited: Do Schools Challenge Our Students?

Although many students still don’t feel like they are being challenged in the classroom, there have been clear instructional improvements associated with standards-based reform.

A student reads test questions on a laptop computer at Annapolis Middle School in Annapolis, Maryland, on February 12, 2015. (AP/Patrick Semansky)
A student reads test questions on a laptop computer at Annapolis Middle School in Annapolis, Maryland, on February 12, 2015. (AP/Patrick Semansky)

When it comes to rigor, the evidence is beyond question. Study after study shows that students perform better academically when they are challenged in the classroom. Students are more eager to learn when their schoolwork pushes them to think deeply about a skill or area of expertise. What’s more, students post stronger achievement gains when they are given schoolwork with higher levels of challenge and complexity.

But many public schools are not doing enough to push their students with rigorous instruction, as the Center for American Progress first revealed in a 2012 report titled “Do Schools Challenge Our Students?”.

In fact, a large percentage of students consider school to be “too easy,” according to CAP’s analysis of student questionnaires from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, otherwise known as “The Nation’s Report Card.” The authors of the 2012 report found that many students did not engage in challenging schoolwork, such as identifying the main themes of a reading passage, and indeed, students themselves appeared to recognize this. In states such as Virginia, “nearly a third of middle-school students reported their math work was too easy.”

When CAP released its 2012 report, many states had just committed to the Common Core State Standards. The standards were an attempt to raise expectations by establishing a new set of rigorous K-12 academic benchmarks, and the CAP analysis underscored the need for more rigorous standards, such as the Common Core, as a way to boost student learning.

Five years later, the authors decided to re-examine the data to see how classrooms have changed. Specifically, the authors wanted to see how student perceptions of their schoolwork might have shifted. Certainly, the education policy environment has shifted, and while most states had just signed on to the standards in 2012, implementation is now well underway, though still in its infancy.

Thus, this column examines two questions: Have students been engaging in deeper, more rigorous learning opportunities since the implementation of the Common Core? Or are public schools still not fully challenging their students?

Students are engaging in more challenging schoolwork

The authors took a look at the same federal survey, using much more recent data from the student survey questionnaires on NAEP’s 2014 and 2015 mathematics, reading, science, and U.S. history assessments. The surveys included questions about students’ classroom experiences, such as their learning activities and the rigor of their coursework.

The new analysis shows some good news. According to the NAEP data, there is a more intensive focus under the Common Core standards on richer types of school work. The analysis also shows that an increasing number of students are engaging in the types of learning activities that prepare them to meet the demands of college and the workplace.

For instance, the share of eighth graders who reported that they spend time “every day or almost every day summarizing reading passages” jumped from 16 percent in 2011 to 20 percent in 2015, and the proportion of eighth graders who said that they spend time nearly every day “identifying main themes in reading passages” jumped from 27 percent to 33 percent over the same time period.

More high school students are also accessing deeper learning opportunities in the Common Core environment. About 61 percent of 12th grade students summarize reading passages at least once a week, compared with 54 percent in 2009. Similarly, eighth graders are more likely to “write long answers on reading tests,” with a 3 percent increase in students reporting that they engage in the practice regularly.

These findings were consistent across subgroups, such as low-income students and students of color. For instance, 45 percent of black eighth-grade students reported working in small groups to discuss reading passages, compared with 37 percent in 2009.

Low-income students are increasingly using computers for richer forms of school work: Among low-income students, one-third of high school seniors now use computers weekly to “research reading and writing projects,” a slight boost from 31 percent in 2009.

When it comes to computers and math, students are also experiencing more rigorous opportunities to gain deep skills. The share of middle schoolers who said that they never use “computer programs for new lessons on math problem solving” dropped from 62 percent to 50 percent, for instance. At the same time, the share of students who “never” use a computer to practice math drills decreased 8 percentage points.

The data also showed some small but positive movement in student perceptions of the rigor of their coursework. More exactly, between 2011 and 2015, there was a one-percentage-point drop in the share of students thinking their classes were “too easy” in fourth-grade math and a two-percentage-point drop in eighth-grade math.

The authors cannot say that the Common Core caused these trends toward more rigor. Correlation, after all, does not equal causation, and while instructional practices have shifted, there have been other drivers of change in schools that this analysis does not take into account, such as shifting demographics.

The data were not all necessarily positive, and in some areas, instructional practices were on the wane. The share of middle school students who read “fewer than five pages” every day, at home or in school, increased slightly, by 1 percentage point since 2011. Similarly, the percentage of eighth graders who reported writing about what they read in class at least once a week has dropped 6 percentage points since 2011. The authors offer one explanation for these data: It would appear that the Common Core standards are pushing students to do more than simply read each day by having them engage more deeply with what they are reading.

Schools still need to do more to challenge students

While there has been a positive shift, schools still don’t do enough to challenge students. Many high school students still consider their class work to be “too easy.” For instance, more than half of 12th graders reported that their math work was always or often “too easy.” Many high school students also say that they don’t get much from school, and nearly 20 percent of high school seniors across the nation don’t “feel like they are learning” in math class.

Some middle school students also still find their schoolwork to be “too easy”: 28 percent say that their math work is not rigorous enough. In elementary school, that percentage jumps to 36 percent. Similarly, many middle school students are still not exposed to rigorous practices: Some 18 percent say that they “never” or “hardly ever” write about their assigned readings.

In addition, early exposure to the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, fields is key for meeting the demands of the future labor market. But there are still major disparities in access to computers, technology, and STEM education in classrooms. Take, for instance, the fact that 97 percent of Nevada’s eighth graders report having access to lab facilities for science instruction, but this figure drops to 59 percent in Mississippi. Lack of access to critical technologies in the classroom directly affects the rigor of students’ classroom learning experience.

These disparities also extend to subgroups. For example, 60 percent of higher-income students attend middle schools with science labs, but only 49 percent of low-income middle school students have this learning opportunity. In addition, more than half of white students learn about engineering and technology in middle school, but the figure drops to 15 percent among black students.


The National Assessment for Educational Progress has long been an important federal data source for education stakeholders. The assessments provide ongoing information about what students know and can do in various subject areas.

But the accompanying surveys also offer important information about student perceptions. Capturing student voices on the issue of learning is key. Their firsthand accounts of what goes on in the classroom carry important policy implications, and research has shown that student surveys can serve as robust indicators of teacher quality.

Against this backdrop, the survey results offer feelings of both optimism and pessimism. The nation has seen clear improvements in school practices over the past few years and appears to be delivering on the promise of higher standards and a commitment to challenging curricula. In this regard, states and districts should show renewed commitment to the Common Core standards.

However, far more needs to be done. Schools, states, and policymakers should continue to push for higher standards, better curricula, and richer expectations. After all, students want—and deserve—more.

Ulrich Boser is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Perpetual Baffour is a Research Associate for the Education Policy team at the Center.

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Ulrich Boser

Former Senior Fellow

Perpetual Baffour

Research Associate