The state's latest education "report cards"--intended to gauge the academic progress of California's schools--show far more students taking far more academic courses in high schools.
School officials say the increase in academic enrollment is due to higher graduation requirements and an expanded school day that allows students to take extra courses.
But it may also represent a statistical glitch.
The report cards, a compilation of test scores and enrollment figures, are scheduled to be made public today.
"We think this year's numbers are probably accurate. We don't really trust last year's figures," said William Burson, a state Department of Education official who has worked on the high school report cards.
The course enrollment figures that are reported for each high school are compiled from answers supplied by students.
Two years ago, 12th-graders were asked, as part of a state test, how many courses they had completed in various high school subjects. Burson said many students assumed that high school courses covered grades 10 through 12.
Last year, however, state officials revised the question to make clear that they wanted information covering grades 9 through 12. Not surprisingly, the most recent numbers are higher than the previous year's.
About 86% of the seniors in 1985 said they had completed four or more years of English, according to the reports to be released today. This was up from 73% in 1984.
Similarly, 74% of the seniors who graduated in June said they had taken three or more years of mathematics, up from 67% the previous year.
Burson said state officials have not used computer tallies or student transcripts to obtain the enrollment figures because "that would be time-consuming and prohibitively expensive."
"You could do an analysis of every kid's transcript, but it would take hundreds of man-hours for each school," he said.
The reports do contain figures on advanced courses--for example, the number of seniors taking chemistry or physics--which are obtained from class enrollments supplied by teachers, he noted.
The reports also include a figure on the school "attendance rate" that Burson said is highly questionable in some cases. On one day in October last year, principals were asked to state the number of students at school. At one-fourth of the state's poorest high schools, the principals said 100% of the students were in attendance.
"I don't believe that figure, and no one else should either," said Burson, who said he and California Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig decided Friday to drop the attendance figure from next year's reports unless they can find a more reliable source for the information.
Honig, who created the "report cards" as a way to inform parents and the public about the progress of the schools, acknowledged a problem with getting good statistics.
"We've had problems collecting this data. Students may have answered the question (on enrollments) differently last year," Honig said. "But it's starting to shake down. We're getting better data this time around."
He pointed out, however, that a team of Stanford University education professors analyzed student transcripts at 20 California high schools and found a higher percentage of the students taking a third and fourth year of English, mathematics, history and science in high school.
"Their figures essentially confirmed what we were seeing," Honig said.
State officials say they expect to publish the high school report cards every year in May containing, in addition to the course enrollments, the most recent figures on how students fared on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the state basic skills exam, and on the College Board's advanced placement tests.
The test scores come directly from testing agencies, not from the schools.
However, the results on this year's reports, which were delayed five months, contain mostly statistics that have already been reported.
The current reports contain the 1984 results from the SAT and the advanced placement tests, which The Times reported on Jan. 20 of this year, and the 1984 state basic skills tests scores, which The Times published last May 5.
Delayed or not, many local school officials say they will put the report cards to good use, even though many at first resisted the idea of publishing detailed comparisons of schools.
In other years, officials from school districts in urban areas have taken pains to note that their schools enroll more students from poor or non-English-speaking homes and, therefore, are more likely to have lower test scores.
Because of that alleged unfairness, this year's reports put a school into one of five categories, based on an estimation of the parents' education level. The school's performance in each area--for example, the average SAT score--is then compared to that of other schools in the same category.
"The reports indicate to us the kind of job we are doing compared to other schools like ours," said Sheila Hirschberg, principal at Venice High School. "We use the reports when we talk to parents and students and point out our areas of strength and weakness."