But other studies point to a disconnect: Even though students are getting more credits in more advanced courses, they are not scoring any higher on standardized tests.
The reason, according to a growing body of research, is that the content of these courses is not as high-achieving as their names — the course-title equivalent of grade inflation. Algebra II is sometimes just Algebra I. And College Preparatory Biology can be just Biology.
Lynn T. Mellor, a researcher in Austin, Tex., who has studied the phenomenon in the state, compares it to a food marketer labeling an orange soda as healthier orange juice.
“Like the misleading drink labels, course titles may bear little relationship to what students have actually learned,” said Dr. Mellor, who has analyzed course completion, test records and other student data in Texas. “We see students taking more and more advanced courses, but still not performing well on end-of-course exams.”
The 2009 results — the most recent available — of the federal test that measures change in achievement levels over decades showed that the nation’s 17-year-olds were scoring no higher in reading and math than in 1973. SAT scores have dropped or flat-lined, too, since 2000.
But a federal study released this month of nearly 38,000 high school transcripts showed that the proportion of graduates completing a rigorous curriculum rose to 13 percent in 2009 from 5 percent in 1990.
Arnold A. Goldstein, a director at the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, which administered both the federal test and the transcripts study, suggested possible causes for this apparent contradiction.
“There may be a ‘watering down’ of courses,” he said. Also, high school seniors may not try hard when they take the federal tests, because there are no consequences based on how they perform, he said.
Schools apply vaunted names to courses in part, researchers said, because administrators want to help students satisfy tougher requirements for high school graduation in many states. They point to parents’ interest in rigorous-sounding coursework for their children, and to administrators’ vanity in offering ambitious classes.
Some educators also argue that students benefit from being exposed to more difficult coursework, even if they do not perform well.
Mark S. Schneider, a vice president of the American Institutes for Research who headed the Education Department’s research wing under President George W. Bush, said the disconnect became apparent a decade ago, after two nationwide surveys showed that the proportion of high school seniors taking trigonometry, precalculus or calculus more than doubled from the early 1980s to the early 2000s.
“Students were taking more rigorous-sounding courses, but there was no evidence they had mastered the content,” Dr. Schneider said. Researchers at Michigan State University began studying the issue for a 2001 paper that drew on the test scores of 13,000 American eighth-grade students who participated in an international math and science exam known as Timss.
They compared the schools’ math courses — ranging from remedial through “enriched” to Algebra I — with the content of the textbooks used in them. In about 15 percent of the cases, the textbook covered less advanced areas of math than the course name suggested, said William H. Schmidt, who led the Michigan research.
In 2008, Dr. Schmidt surveyed 30 high schools in Ohio and Michigan, finding 270 distinctly labeled math courses. In science, one district offered Basic Biology, BioScience, General Biology A and B — 10 biology courses in all.
“The titles didn’t reveal much at all about how advanced the course was,” he said.
Course-title inflation is easier to document in math and science, researchers said, but they suspect it is happening in English and other subjects, too.
Growing skepticism among parents and policy makers about the rigor of high school coursework has been a factor, experts say, in the rapid growth of Advanced Placement, the College Board’s program of college-level courses.
Over a decade, the number of A.P. exams taken by American high school students has more than doubled, to 3.1 million in 2010 from 1.2 million in 2000.
Politicians and educators in many states have promoted the program, hoping to provide more rigor beyond the traditional curriculum. But the failure rate is also higher on A.P. exams, which are graded on a scale of 1 to 5. The proportion of exams earning low scores of 1 or 2 rose to 42.5 percent in 2010, up from 36.4 percent in 2000.
Trevor Packer, a College Board vice president, said his organization was wrestling with whether access to A.P. should be expanded even if that meant more students failed. For now, the proportion of low scorers is “tolerable,” he said.
Mr. Packer spent a recent week visiting A.P. classes in low-income schools in California, where, he said, he found the level of instruction surprisingly high and students well motivated.
“It was also clear that many students were being placed in A.P. who didn’t have the preparation,” he said. But the California principals argued that even students who score poorly in A.P. were better off than if they had taken only standard coursework, Mr. Packer said.
Bruce Orr, the principal of Lakeside High School, in Hot Springs, Ark., agreed. Mr. Orr’s students took 297 A.P. exams last year — eight times as many as in 2004.
“It’s about adding rigor,” Mr. Orr said about his campaign to increase A.P. enrollments.
Across Arkansas, the number of A.P. exams has nearly sextupled since 2000. The proportion of Arkansas students who score a 1 or 2 has surged, too, and is now the nation’s highest: 70 percent in 2010.
Mr. Orr said he was not concerned about how many Lakeside students each year earned high A.P. scores.
“Just being in that rigorous course environment does these kids a world of good,” he said.
Down a hallway, Corey Boby, a math teacher, was drilling his A.P. calculus students in derivatives, preparing for their exam next month.
“They’ll do fine,” Mr. Boby said. But he worried whether some students were fully prepared to take A.P. courses, which he likened to running a marathon.
“My concern is that we may push kids into marathons when maybe they are only ready to run a mile,” he said.
Brandi Davis, a student in Mr. Boby’s third-period class, Transitions to College Math, struggled to catch up, she said, after taking a chaotic eighth-grade math course in a neighboring district.
The course had a catchy name, she recalled: “Jungle Gym Math.”
“It had some geometry, some algebra,” Brandi said. “It jumped around.”