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Reforms Neither Help Nor Hurt At-Risk Students, Study Concludes

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Washington--A new report on the effects of school reforms in four urban districts concludes that the changes have been "neither a disaster nor a boon" for the academic performance of educationally disadvantaged students.

The report, released last week by the General Accounting Office, examines the impact of reforms enacted since the beginning of the decade. Because of the small sample--about 61,000 high-school students--and the limited scope of the study, its authors caution that their findings "apply only to the school districts studied."

The districts, which were not identified, include one in the Northeast, two in the Southeast, and one in the Southwest.

The study focused on reforms as they affected educationally disadvantaged students in three areas: academic performance, dropout rates, and enrollment in vocational-education classes. The researchers defined an educationally disadvantaged student as one who scored below the 35th percentile on reading achievement tests in the 8th grade.

The reforms examined included such measures as stiffer academic course requirements for graduation and the requirement of a passing score on a high-school "exit test." The researchers looked at groups of "pre-reform" and "post-reform" students over a period of five years.

To judge academic performance, they evaluated changes in reading and mathematics scores in the four districts. Disadvantaged students showed "modest improvements" in three of eight instances.

The effect of reform on dropout rates was "mixed," the authors found. Only two of the districts could provide data on dropout rates; in one, the rate decreased slightly, in the other it showed a modest increase.

The number of disadvantaged students enrolled in vocational-education classes declined slightly after reforms were adopted, the study found.

The decline in vocational-education enrollment, though meager, was cause for "possible concern," the report says. It notes that the decline occurred entirely among classes "that prepare students for the labor market, rather than among consumer or homemaker courses."

The report, "Education Reform: Initial Effects in Four School Districts," is available from the g.a.o., P.O. Box 6015, Gaithersburg, Md. 20877. The first five copies are free; additional copies are $2 each.--mn

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