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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Most U.S. high school introductory algebra courses labeled "honors" actually are no more rigorous than regular courses in the same school, according to a government curriculum survey released on Tuesday.
The study of high school algebra and geometry classes shows that mislabeling of math courses as tougher than they are is widespread, the survey authors told a news conference.
The report raises questions about mathematics instruction as U.S. employers complain about a shortage of qualified workers. Despite improvements, U.S. students trail leaders from other advanced economies in mathematics, science and reading.
"If we're accepting a watered-down ... course, call it anything, we are in effect suggesting that we haven't met these students' needs," said Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of assessment for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
The survey showed that of high school graduates who took an algebra I, or introductory, class labeled "honors" by their school, about 73 percent were taught material analysts ranked as intermediate.
Eighteen percent of the students actually received a rigorous curriculum, the survey said.
But 34 percent of graduates who took an algebra I class labeled "regular" at the same school instead got a rigorous curriculum.
For geometry, among graduates who took classes labeled "honors," 33 percent got a rigorous curriculum and 62 percent were taught intermediate material.
Nineteen percent of graduates who took a "regular" geometry course received a rigorous curriculum.
The study was based on 17,800 transcripts of graduates from about 550 public high schools in 2005. Analysts compared more than 120 different textbooks and their review questions and interviewed teachers to find the results.
NCES Commissioner Jack Buckley, who oversaw the study, said an examination of textbooks used in 2009 showed they had remained unchanged since 2005.
Most graduates took an intermediate level algebra I course. There were no major differences among white, black and Hispanic graduates who took intermediate and rigorous algebra I courses.
Reporting by Ian Simpson. Editing by Andre Grenon