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Study of 8th Graders Finds % at High Risk of Failure

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Washington--One-fifth of all 8th graders--and two-fifths of blacks and Hispanics at that grade level--are at high risk of school failure, a massive survey by the Education Department has concluded.

The results from the National Education Longitudinal Survey of 1988 also confirm the widely held impression that these high-risk students are more likely than their more advantaged peers to perform poorly in school, to repeat a grade, and to expect not to graduate.

But the survey report adds that most U.S. 8th graders--whether advantaged or disadvantaged--fail to perform at advanced levels of achievement, and many possess characteristics that could serve as "roadblocks'' to their success in school.

The findings, released here in late June, were based on a survey of 24,599 8th graders in about 1,000 public and private schools; surveys of their teachers, parents, and principals; and tests of cognitive achievement. Follow-up studies will track the students as they progress through school and move into higher education and the workforce.

Preliminary findings from the survey were released this spring by department researchers and by the University of Chicago sociologist James S. Coleman. (See Education Week, April 18 and April 25, 1990.)

Christopher T. Cross, the department's assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, said the survey findings provide the richest lode of data yet available on students at the critical turning point before high school.

He noted that the department is making the data available in a wide range of forms, and he invited researchers to analyze them to determine the schooling and home factors that affect student achievement--both positively and negatively.

"The information can and will lead to important answers on what can be done to improve educational outcomes for all students, especially those at risk," Mr. Cross said.

Third Longitudinal Study

The nels:88 survey is the third major effort by the federal government to monitor student progress over time. The first two, the National Longitudinal Survey of 1972 and the High School and Beyond study of 1980, have provided data for groundbreaking studies, such as the recent Brookings Institution book, Politics, Markets, and America's Schools.

Unlike the earlier studies, Mr. Cross noted, the nels:88 survey is the first to begin with students in the 8th grade. These results, he said, should provide the first available national data on "early dropouts--those who never make it into high school."

The survey respondents also included a large sample of language-minority students, he noted, to enable researchers to compare their performance with those whose primary language is English.

A 'Snapshot'

In addition to providing baseline data for the longitudinal study, the nels:88 results present a "snapshot" of the sample of adolescents, according to the report on the findings, "A Profile of the American 8th Grader."

It reveals that nearly half of the students--47 percent--have at least one factor the researchers concluded would place them at risk of school failure. These factors include: living in a single-parent family, low parental education or income, limited English proficiency, having a sibling who dropped out of high school, and being at home alone without an adult for long periods on weekdays.

Although "having a single risk factor does not indicate a child is destined for failure," the report notes, combinations of risk factors tend to be detrimental to success.

Some 20 percent of all 8th graders have two or more risk factors, it says, and that proportion is higher among minorities than whites. Blacks, for example, were found to be more than twice as likely as whites to come from low-income and single-parent households; Hispanics were much more likely than whites to have parents without high-school diplomas and to have limited proficiency in English.

Grade Retention

The report notes that students at risk of failure are more likely than their more advantaged peers to repeat grades in school. Providing what appears to be the first national data on grade retention, the survey found that 18 percent of 8th graders reported that they had repeated a grade, and that 20 percent of parents said their child had been retained.

In addition, the survey found that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds tended to perform less well than wealthier students on tests of cognitive ability. For example, 8th graders in the top 25 percent of the socioeconomic scale were found to be eight times more likely than those in the bottom 25 percent to show proficiency in mathematics at the advanced level.

But, the report notes, even when socioeconomic status is taken into account, white and Asian students still outperform blacks and Hispanics in reading and mathematics. And, it adds, many students from all ethnic and economic backgrounds have difficulty mastering complex reading and mathematical skills.

Mr. Cross noted that other survey findings may help explain these low levels of performance.

For example, he said, half of the 8th graders reported that they were bored in school at least half of the time, and many said they go to class unprepared. In addition, nearly half of the students said they had discussed schoolwork with their parents only once or twice or not at all during the year.

"We've heard a lot about parental involvement," said the assistant secretary, adding that discussing schoolwork with children "is one of the fundamental things parents can and should be doing."

Copies of "A Profile of American 8th Graders" are available for $9 each by contacting the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402. The stock number is 065-00000404-6.

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