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Published: Friday, 7/13/2012

Easy as pi

Educators say students perform better when more is expected of them. A new report suggests that teachers don't practice what they preach often enough.

Many American elementary and high school students don't find their math classes challenging, according to data collected by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and analyzed by the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan research and educational institute. Thirty-seven percent of fourth-graders, 29 percent of eight-graders, and 21 percent of 12th-graders say their math classes often or always are too easy, the survey concludes.

But math is more challenging than civics and history. Fifty-one percent of eight-graders and 56 percent of 12th-grade students say civics is often or always too easy. And 57 percent of eighth-graders and 55 percent of 12th-graders had the same response to their history classes.

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The numbers for Ohio students were similar to those of the nation as a whole. Among the other findings:

● Nearly a third of eighth-grade students report that they read five or fewer pages a day, in school and for homework. About a third of eighth-graders are asked to write long answers on reading tests no more than twice a year.

● Thirty-nine percent of seniors say they hardly ever, or once or twice a month, write about a reading assignment. Nearly one in five are seldom, if ever, asked to summarize reading passages. Almost a third say they rarely have to identify main themes in their reading.

Race and economic status matter, according to the study. African-American, Hispanic, and Native American students, as well as students from low-income families, have a tougher time in their classes than their white, Asian-American, and higher-income peers.

Toledo Public Schools' chief academic officer, Jim Gault, said he isn't surprised by the findings. For years, he said, schools have geared instruction to the middle, or average, student. As a result, he said, some students find the work too easy, while other students struggle to keep up.

In recent years, the temptation to shoot down the middle has been reinforced by shrinking school budgets. Special programs for both gifted and struggling students often are among the first to be cut when money is tight.

Mr. Gault said TPS is working to differentiate instruction despite budget constraints. District schools, he said, seek to create a culture of high expectations.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Academy is a success story. Two years ago, the state's annual report card declared the school in academic emergency. Last year, King jumped two places, to continuous improvement. "This August," Mr. Gault said, "I will be surprised if they are not [rated] effective or excellent."

America's future prosperity depends on the ability of its schools to prepare students to compete in the global economy. The movement away from the rigid No Child Left Behind program and the emergence of national guidelines for a common core curriculum are promising.

But more must be done to challenge, not overwhelm or discourage, students.

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