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Study Cites Value of Compact to Boston Schools

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A "compact" established two years ago between Boston businesses and the city's public schools has made progress toward its goals of helping 'reduce absenteeism and raise achievement scores, but it has achieved only slight improvements in the dropout rate, according to preliminary figures from a study on the first two years of the compact.

The study, to be released this month, will focus on the two-year experience of the job side of the compact, and the first-year experience of the school side, said Robert B. Schwartz, the compact's director.

Under the agreement signed in 1982, the Boston Public Schools pledged to work toward four goals: decreasing the absentee and dropout rate by 5 percent each year; increasing the number of students going on to higher education by 25 percent over the next five years; and ensuring that by 1986 every student, upon graduation, would be able to meet basic academic standards in reading and mathematics, according to Ian Forman, a spokesman for the school district.

In return, business leaders agreed to make a point of hiring local high-school graduates for vacant entry-level positions in their firms.

'Greatest Impact'

"I think the single greatest impact the compact has had in schools has been in the area of student attendance," Mr. Schwartz said. "One of the first things an employer wants to know is what a student's attendance record has been like."

According to Boston School Department figures, the average daily attendance rate in the city's 17 public high schools was 83 percent in 1983-84, up from 80 percent in 1982-83, and 78 percent in 1981-82. Under the compact, beginning this year, each student must attend classes at least 85 percent of the time in order to graduate. Last year, the minimum requirement was 80 percent.

Achievement scores for 1983-84 were also up in all high schools over 1982-83 scores. In the reading section of the district's basic-skills test, the median 9th-grade score improved by 8 percentile points, the 10th-grade score by 6 points and the 11th-grade score by 4. In the mathematics section, the 9th-grade score improved by 12 percentile points, the 10th-grade score by 4 points and the 11th-grade score by 6 points.

However, 14 of the city's high schools still have median reading scores at or below the 30th percentile, and 10 have median mathematics scores at or below that level, the figures show.

Under the new standards agreed to, beginning in the next two years, students will be required to pass a standardized reading test in the 5th, 8th, and 12th grades as well as curriculum-referenced tests twice a year in every class in order to be promoted.

Number Reflects Plans

The number of students planning to go on to higher education increased somewhat in 1983-84, with 57 percent of Boston's seniors saying they planned to study full time this fall, up from 54 percent the previous year. However, school officials say that number reflects plans only, not the actual enrollment.

Mr. Schwartz said he was cautious about making any "grandiose claims" about the role the compact has played in reducing absenteeism and raising achievment scores. But he said he believed the presence of the compact had helped school officials define and focus on agreed-upon goals toward which progress could be measured.

Robert Spillane, Boston school superintendent, agreed.

"I think the Boston project is much further ahead than other similar programs around the country in terms of actual delivery," he said. ''We're starting to see some very tangible results."

Little Gain on Dropouts

The compact appears to have had the least impact on the dropout rate, according to the preliminary study findings. The rate for 1983-84 was only 0.5 percent lower than in 1982-83, while it actually increased by more than 3 percent, from 12 to 15 percent, between 1980-81 and 1982-83.

"We said our target was to increase by 5 percent a year the percentage of 9th graders who stay in school all the way to graduation," Mr. Schwartz said. "It's really too early to see the impact [of the compact] on entering freshmen."

Mr. Schwartz said that unless extra resources are provided to help dropouts, the stricter standards may actually push out the marginal students, because they cannot cope with the additional academic rigor.

"Unlike the issue of attendance, you can't just tighten up administratively or dangle a job in front of a kid," he said. "Reducing the dropout rate may require much broader changes."

Successful Placements

The job side of the program has also been fairly successful, according to the study. Of the 242 (out of 415) graduates placed in jobs in 1983 who responded to a follow-up survey, 92 percent were still working or had gone on to college six months later. Of those still working, 70 percent were with their original firms, almost half had received raises, and 13 percent had been promoted.

James Darr, executive director of the Private Industry Council, the organization that runs the business side of the compact, said he is pleased with the way the program is going.

"We feel it's pretty much on schedule, and the goals of the compact are being taken seriously," he said. "The [dropout] goal was ambitious, and we're encouraged by the improvement in attendance and achievement scores. We think the trend looks pretty good."

Compact Has Grown

The compact began with 21 businesses and has grown to include more than 300, Mr. Forman said. Having placed 415 high-school graduates in jobs last year, it hopes to have placed 600 1984 graduates in entry-level positions by the end of this month. Any student who passes the required competency tests and meets the school attendance criteria is eligible for the compact's program.

Students are then listed with the Private Industry Council. The firms that are now part of the compact have agreed to refer first to the council's list of eligible students when looking for entry-level employees.

For the first time this year, the Boston School Department will supply $300,000 to fund a part of the compact. Previously, the program was funded by private and foundation grants, Mr. Schwartz said.

"In no sense is this a guaranteed-jobs program," Mr. Schwartz said. "We're not asking businesses to create special jobs or waive normal standards. We simply ask businesses to, all things being equal, take a kid who's been referred to them."

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