More high school students are enrolling in math and science classes and seeking online learning opportunities. Fewer want or are able to find jobs while in school.
Those are just some of the changes under way at the nation's high schools in how students are learning and what they are doing with their extra time, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Education Department.
The annual "Condition of Education" report said there has been a marked increase over the last two decades in the percent of high school graduates who had taken calculus, from 7 percent in 1990 to 16 percent in 2009. Overall, the percentage enrolling in math and science courses increased in all subjects except algebra I, a class many students now take in middle school.
Yet while more are enrolling, the report also states that scores have largely stagnated: Seventeen-year-old students performed neither significantly better nor worse on a national math and reading assessment than they did in the early 1970s. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress test in science found just 1 percent of high school seniors scored at the highest achievement level in 2009.
Three decades ago, the Department of Education released its landmark report, "A Nation at Risk," which raised concerns about academic achievement and called for students to take three years of math and science.
Nancy Songer, a professor of science education and learning technologies at the University of Michigan, said that once high school students finish their math and reading requirements, there is a noticeable drop in the number that pursue courses in those subjects as an elective.
"Even if we are seeing some bubbles of improvement in enrollment, we are still dramatically under-enrolled compared to what we will need in the future," Songer said.
In other subjects scores have also stalled: Seniors have performed only slightly better in U.S. history and slightly worse in geography on recent national assessments.
How students are receiving instruction is undergoing a significant change. Whereas 220,000 students were enrolled in distance education courses a decade ago, over 1.3 million were taking them in the 2009-10 school year. Those courses are usually online, and can be done at home or in class.
"There's really been a big shift in how these courses are delivered," Jack Buckley, commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics, said in an interview Thursday.
Meanwhile, a substantial drop has been seen in the number of high schools students who are working. In 1990, 32 percent had a job. Two decades later, just 16 percent did.
Buckley said the decline can be attributable to a variety of factors, including the recent economic downtown, during which jobs previously occupied by high school students and other young adults were taken by adults with more experience.
The report also described a number of others changes, including: A huge expansion in public school enrollment in states like Arizona and Nevada that is expected to continue over the next decade; a decrease in the number of children receiving special education services; more teachers with college degrees, and a higher percentage of school principals who are female.