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High school is just too easy, students say

As students begin returning to school, they say that their classwork is not difficult and that they would like to be challenged more, according to two surveys of more than 11,000 students.  MSNBC’s Alex Johnson reports.

As they head back to classes in the next few weeks, American high school students reject the idea that they are being overburdened by homework and expectations, complaining that school isn’t challenging enough.

The findings come in two recent surveys by the National Governors Association and the Horatio Alger Association, a nonprofit education group. Combined, the surveys polled more than 11,000 high school students.

By overwhelming majorities, students said they would work harder at their studies if more was expected from them — 65 percent in the governors’ poll and 88 percent in the Alger poll.

The gap between the two results may reflect differences in how the surveys were conducted and worded. The governors association set up a Web site, where more than 10,000 students ages 16 to 18 answered questions during the past three months. The Alger poll was a more traditional telephone survey of 1,005 students ages 13 to 19 by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, which also conducts polling for NBC News.

At odds with conventional wisdom
The findings come as some education activists have started warning that strict federally imposed standards, such as President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative, have piled American teenagers with too much homework and pressure to succeed on standardized tests. In a report last year, the Carrboro-Chapel Hill School District in North Carolina identified “pressure to perform” as a significant deterrent to school achievement. “High school is not a mini-university,” the report said.

But the new surveys suggest that students themselves disagree.

Only 31 percent said in the Alger poll that expectations at their schools were high or that they were being significantly challenged. The governors’ poll posed the question a different way; more then 3 in 5 students — 62 percent — said their schools had done a bad or only fair job of “holding my attention.”

Specifically, 92 percent in the Alger report said they wanted more real-world experience in the curriculum, while most endorsed standardized testing. And they said they wished they had better and earlier guidance about their futures from teachers and counselors.

“More than ever before, students set a high bar for themselves and they expect their high schools to meet the same criteria,” the Alger Association said. “Just as they expect more from themselves, students want their high schools to expect more from them as well.”

Even more striking, when the governors asked high schoolers how valuable their senior year was, half said it was a “waste of time,” or could be “much more meaningful,” and more than a third said their classes were not adequately preparing them for college.

At its annual meeting last month, the National Governors Association announced an agreement to standardize data collection on dropout rates across the states and to adopt uniform criteria for graduating.

“Students care a great deal about making high school better,” Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who was head of the governors association when the survey closed last month, said in a statement. “We know we can’t make high school more meaningful without input from the experts.”

Other findings
The National Governors Association survey questioned 10,378 students who visited the Rate Your Future Web site from May through mid-July. The Horatio Alger Association questioned 1,005 students by telephone in May as part of its annual State of Our Nation’s Youth report, which was released last week; it reported a margin of sampling error of 3 percentage points.

As part of its larger report, the Alger Association also found that:

  • 33 percent of students don’t think schools are doing enough to prevent bullying, and 24 percent think not enough is being done to keep weapons off campus.
  • 42 percent think at least half of their classmates cheat on tests.
  • 95 percent have some form of Internet access, with 7 percent getting their access only at school. By contrast, 54 percent say they read a newspaper at least a few times a week.
  • 63 percent have cell phones; 62 percent of those students say they break school rules against using them fairly or very often.
  • 42 percent think abuse of steroids is a fairly big or very big problem among high school athletes.