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Reforms Seen Likely To Reduce Choice, Increase School Stratification of Pupils

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Recent efforts to raise academic standards may encourage greater student effort, but they may also push marginal students out of school, according to a report by researchers at The Johns Hopkins University.

Issued by the university's Center for Social Organization of Schools, the report says that while improved student performance may follow recent reforms, higher average test scores may reflect the omission of some low-achieving students "whose response to the higher standards will be to give up and drop out."

Measuring student performance on the "survivor model"--accounting only for students who remain in school--rather than on the "full-enrollment model"--factoring in the past test scores of dropouts--will give a falsely positive view of the reform efforts, the report warns.

More important, reform efforts might then fail to address the needs of an entire population of students who, far from benefiting from the reforms, may actually be harmed, the report adds.

Equity vs. Excellence

The report, "Raising Standards and Retaining Students: The Impact of the Reform Recommendations on Potential Dropouts," was compiled by Edward L. McDill, professor of sociology, and Aaron M. Pallas, associate research scientist in sociology, at Johns Hopkins, and Gary Natriello, assistant professor of sociology at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The researchers based their conclusions on a review of the reforms suggested by various commissions; the characteristics of students who drop out; and the research on school, family, and economic factors associated with dropouts.

The report echoes the concerns of other educators and researchers who, following the first wave of reform initiatives at the state level in 1984, warned that raising standards may hurt the marginal student. (See Education Week, April 18, 1984.)

The reform reports generally advocate a more rigorous curriculum; more requirements for promotion3and graduation; more instructional time, usually through extending the school day or the school year; and stricter attendance and discipline policies.

In the past two years, 43 states have raised high-school graduation requirements; 15 states now require exit tests for high-school graduation; and 37 states have instituted statewide assessments of students. (See Education Week, Feb. 6, 1985.)

But the reform commissions often failed "to give balanced emphasis to the ideas of quality and equality of education, precepts which have alternated in dominating the attention of policymakers and educators in the past two decades," the Johns Hopkins report notes.

Of particular concern is the "overall lack of attention to the dropout problem in secondary schools as both an equity and excellence problem," the study says.

Approximately 25 percent of all 18-year-olds nationwide have not graduated from high school, the study states. Other reports put the figure at 50 percent or higher in many inner-city schools.

High Standards, More Effort

On the other hand, raising standards will lead some students to work harder, particularly when the standards were originally low, the researchers acknowledge. In particular, greater student effort on homework and higher expectations in the classroom seem to improve achievement at all levels, their research review indicated.

"The higher the demand level in the classroom, the more likely students were to report paying attention in class and spending time on homework," the researchers write. "Paradoxically, it was in the low-demand classrooms that student cutting was the highest."

'Frustration and Failure'

However, the researchers note, "it is not clear that these relationships will hold for all students under all conditions." In fact, because students drop out for a variety of reasons--including poor academic performance, social pressures, and economic reasons--the higher standards may actually lead to "unintended negative consequences," they add.

Specifically, the report states, the higher standards and longer school days or years may:

Lead to greater academic stratification and less student choice in schools.

Cause more students to fail "without apparent remedies."

Lead to more conflicts between the demands of schools and other demands placed upon students.

"If academic standards are raised and students are not provided substantial additional help to attain them, it seems plausible to expect that socially and academically disadvantaged students will be more likely to experience frustration and failure, resulting in notable increases in absenteeism, truancy, and school-related behavior problems," the report notes.

Finding Alternatives

The study suggests several measures to help combat these negative effects. Positive, immediate results are obtained by reducing school size, the authors say, contending that "researchers and practitioners are practically unanimous in asserting its importance."

Schools of 300 to 400 students have less disruption, higher achievement levels, higher rates of student participation in extracurricular activities, and stronger "feelings of satisfaction with school life," the report argues.

Second, it suggests that an individualized curriculum and instructional approach are needed to keep low-achieving students from developing "the sense of academic failure and low self-esteem characteristic of school delinquents, truants, and dropouts, feelings that will be even more pronounced as standards are raised."

The report also suggests that educators must endeavor to change the ''climate" of schools to incorporate such characteristics as reward systems and clear, consistent rules governing social behavior.

Copies of the report are available for $3.70 per copy from the Education Research Dissemination Office, csos, The Johns Hopkins University, 3503 North Charles St., Baltimore, Md. 21218.

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