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Minorities' Aspirations Found High in Early Grades

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A new study suggests that black and Hispanic elementary-school children enjoy school more and have greater confidence in their own academic abilities than their white classmates do.

The unpublished report, written by three researchers at the University of Michigan's Center For Human Growth and Development, challenges popular beliefs that attribute minority children's poor academic achievement to such characteristics as low self-esteem and a lack of educational motivation and direction.

More significant, its authors say, are questions the study raises about what goes wrong for these children later on in junior high and high school. At that point, studies have shown, their academic performance and attitudes toward school often deteriorate markedly.

In 1988, for example, only 65 percent of both black and Hispanic Americans in the 17-to-18-year-old age group finished high school. By comparison, 77 percent of white 17-to-18-year-olds received a diploma.

"We think what happens is that, because teachers have lower expectations for minority students, often whenever they do anything well they're given lots of praise," said Harold W. Stevenson, the primary author of the study.

The elementary-school praise may give these pupils a false perception of how they are progressing academically, he suggested.

"They get to high school and junior high school and it turns out to be really hard and then despair sets in," the researcher said. "Kids start thinking, 'Why study?' There is less likelihood of their getting a good job anyway."

For their study, Mr. Stevenson and his co-authors, Chuansheng Chen and David H. Uttal, administered curriculum-based reading and mathematics tests to 3,000 1st, 3rd, and 5th graders in 20 schools in Chicago and its surrounding metropolitan area.

They found, as have other studies, that black and Hispanic children performed more poorly than white children over all.

In the 5th grade, however, ethnic differences in mathematics scores disappeared when the researchers took into account the educational levels of the children's mothers. Children of all races whose mothers had less education fared worse on those tests than the children of better-educated mothers.

But the mother's educational background made no difference on reading tests, where black and Hispanic children scored lower than whites even when such factors were taken into account.

"Our interpretation of this finding is that the material the children were asked to read required experiences and knowledge that were less likely to be part of the daily lives of the black and Hispanic than of the white children," the report states.

The researchers also interviewed 1,161 children and 1,000 of their mothers. They found that, despite their lower performance levels on the tests, black and Hispanic children generally thought they were doing better in reading and mathematics than their white counterparts thought they were doing. The minority children rated themselves as faring better, in fact, than they really were.

"Only the ratings made by the white children were significantly related to their achievement scores," the report states.

In the 1st grade, the researchers found, children in all three groups were equally positive about school. By 3rd grade, however, the white pupils' fondness for school had waned significantly.

When asked how far they would go in their schooling, the minority children were as optimistic as they were about their achievement. Among 5th graders, 93 percent of the black children and 71 percent of the Hispanic children said they would attend college. Eighty percent of the white children said they would pursue higher education.

Like their children, the black and Hispanic mothers also placed greater emphasis on and expressed more concern about education than white families did.

They rated their children's math and reading abilities higher than white mothers did, and they were more likely to say that their child "spoke positively about the teacher, looked forward to homework, came home from school happy, could not wait for vacations to end, and was eager to go back to school each morning."

"They think their kids are doing well," said Mr. Stevenson, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

"We don't want to destroy those positive feelings, but what you want to do at the same time is show them that there is a need for somewhat higher expectations about what kids can do," he said.

Such findings, some experts said last week, may raise more questions than they answer.

"There might be a simpler explanation" for the minority students' unrealistically high self-perceptions, said Asa Hilliard, the Fuller E. Callaway Professor of Urban Education at Georgia State University.

"The minority students may never get an opportunity to see what peak performance looks like," he said. "Certainly, the white students would see higher performances if only because of the fact that they were in a group that achieved higher."

He also pointed out that minority students' attitudes toward school may change in high school simply because they have failed a lot longer.

"You would really need participant observations and ethnographic studies to see what was really going on," he said.

Mr. Stevenson said the Chicago study, which was conducted during the 1986-87 school year, was part of a larger cross-cultural study being funded by $600,000 in grants from the William T. Grant Foundation and the National Science Foundation. The more extensive study compares the beliefs and achievements of American students with those of students in Japan, China, and Taiwan.

In general, said Mr. Stevenson, "Americans are given feedback which indicates they're doing better than they really are."

"To that extent, blacks and Hispanics share our problems in America," he added.

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