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Students Have Lost Their 'Thirst for Knowledge,' Study Indicates

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Springfield, Ill--The academic achievement of Illinois high-school juniors has slipped significantly since 1970, and state officials have concluded that the reasons for the decline lie mainly outside the classroom.

The Illinois State Board of Education staff recently released its analysis of what has become known as the Decade Study, a program that tested a large, representative sample of 11th graders to determine how students in 1981 compared with their counterparts in 1970 and to identify the factors that influence student achievement.

The test, developed by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., for use in Florida high schools, was first administered to Illinois 11th graders in 1970. The University of Illinois administered the test to 34,000 juniors in 307 high schools throughout the state. In 1981, the state board persuaded 122 of those schools to participate in a second round of testing, involving 9,693 juniors.

Last fall, the board released the 1981 achievement data showing a significant across-the-board decline from the 1970 scores in language arts, social studies, mathematics, and natural science.

But a more detailed examination of the test results suggests that the decline can be traced more to the students' attitudes and their family life than to the schools. The state board's analysts have concluded that the family environment and a student's "thirst for knowledge" have at least as much impact on achievement as certain elements of the school setting, including student-teacher ratios and per-pupil spending.

And the board's staff suggested that student motivation was by far the most significant influence on achievement in mathematics, greater than either the home or school environment.

"The most positive predictor of student achievement was self-appraisal of the performance students expected on the mathematics subtests," the study said. "Students performed closely to their own estimates of ability."

Motivational Information

The report continued: "A second important piece of motivational information is the number of mathematics courses taken. This information indicates what has been called intrinsic interest, thirst for knowledge, or continuing motivation.

"Achievement is highly related to students' belief that education is valuable to them and that they can accurately appraise their own strengths to reach their performance goals.

"The impact of the motivational variables is found in performance in mathematics and natural science. It appears that performance in these areas is heavily influenced by the students' will to achieve."

In other words, says Leslie J. Fyans of the board's staff, "If you want a child to be good at math and science, that child has to want to be good at math and science. If you want to increase achievements in math and sci-ence, you should look less to pumping money into it and look instead into how you can increase a kid's interest in becoming an engineer or mathematician or architect."

Thomas Kerins, head of program analysis and evaluation for the state board, adds: "It will not help to require X number of years of math"--as the Illinois General Assembly voted to do this year--"if a kid doesn't want to take it."

The results of the Decade Study underscored the conclusions of other state testing programs regarding the impact of family characteristics on classroom performance.

"Students who talk with their parents about schoolwork perform better than their peers [who do not discuss studies with their parents] in English, social studies, and nat-ural science," the study found. "The amount of communication is clearly one of the most significant positive contributions of the family to a student's education. The education of the parents, both father and mother, is positively related to high achievement in mathematics and social studies."

The study acknowledged some relationship between certain elements of the school "context"--student-teacher ratio, expenditures, enrollments--and achievement in verbal skills.

But it also concluded that "these features did not account for a sizable portion of the difference in scores from one year to the next in mathematics, social studies, or natural science."

State officials plan to make the Decade Study available to school districts to help with the evaluation of local programs.

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