Reforming the Reform of Upper Secondary Education in Germany

Empirical educational research puts the changes to the test

May 25, 2010

In many of the German states, upper secondary education is currently undergoing major reform, with the key objective of improving student outcomes in mathematics, German, and modern languages. Baden-Württemberg is playing a leading role in this reform process. As the results of an empirical comparative study conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the University of Tübingen show, there has been a moderate improvement in the mathematics performance of Baden-Württemberg’s academic-track students. However, no improvement is discernible in their learning outcomes in English. The scientists call for further studies casting light on all effects of the reform process—for example, on other subjects and on students’ readiness for higher education.

Reforms of upper secondary education have been progressing quietly in many German states for several years. The main change is a move from the course system back to more canonical models that largely remove the distinction into basic and advanced courses, increase the number of examination subjects at upper secondary level, and limit students’ freedom to select subjects. The foundation for these changes was laid by the Husum agreement on upper secondary education made by the StandingConferenceof theMinistersofEducationandCulturalAffairson 22 October 1999. But are these reforms succeeding in their aims of raising and harmonizing standards in the traditional core areas of upper secondary education – German, mathematics, and modern languages – and boosting the natural sciences? And are students now better or worse prepared for university studies?

Scientists at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the University of Tübingen have addressed these questions, comparing educational outcomes before and after the reforms. A team from the Max Planck Institute first assessed more than 5,000 final year students in 150 academic-track schools in Baden-Württemberg in the 2001/2002 school year, investigating their performance in mathematics and English, preparation for higher education, and choice of university major (TOSCA-2002 study). A repeat assessment in the 2005/06 school year (TOSCA-2006) provided a unique opportunity to examine the effects of the organizational changes that had been implemented in the intervening years on students’ learning outcomes and readiness for higher education.

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