Improved Capacity To Gather Data on Youths May be 'Real Winner of New Futures

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City and agency officials overseeing the Annie E. Casey Foundation's $50-million New Futures initiative have scaled back their expectations of transforming the landscape for at-risk youths within five years.

But long after the Casey grants end, the management-information systems set up to track students' progress will be generating data with the potential to help better guide efforts to serve disadvantaged youths and their families, project officials maintain.

New Futures, launched in 1988, focuses on building community partnerships of schools and other youth-serving agencies in four cities: Dayton, Ohio, Pittsburgh, Savannah, Ga., and Little Rock, Ark. (See related story, page 1 .)

In addition to sparking interventions to raise student achievement and lower dropout, youth-unemployment, and teenage- pregnancy rates, a key project aim is to bolster the cities' capacity to gather detailed data on youths and to track students' progress.

"That will be one of the biggest benefits of this whole activity," said Otis Johnson, executive director of the Chatham-Savannah Youth-Futures Authority, the oversight body for New Futures in Savannah.

"If, in the next couple of years, we can get cities to become independent in their ability to process and develop good information to make decisions, it will be a real winner," said Stanley J. Schneider, senior vice president of Metis Associates, a consulting firm under contract with the Center for the Study of Social Policy to evaluate New Futures.

Metis has prepared statistical reports on each of the cities and a draft report summarizing trends in all four cities over the first two years of the project, 1988-89 and 1989-90. The data, covering 61,977 6th through 12th graders the first year and 58,040 the second, show overall school-district trends rather than singling out New Futures pilot schools.

Statistical Highlights

Some highlights include:

  • Based on standardized tests, the average reading scores of students in the four cities, which ranged in the first year from the 42nd percentile in reading for 7th graders to the 52nd percentile for 11th graders, remained largely stable over the two years.
  • Average mathematics achievement scores for 7th graders rose from the 44th percentile in the first year to the 48th percentile in the second year, but dropped from the 48th to the 44th percentile for 8th graders.
  • Differences in the scores of black and white students were substantial. For example, black male 9th graders scored in the 33rd percentile in reading in the second year, while white male 9th graders scored in the 61st percentile.
  • The total number of graduates in the four cities fell from 7,381 to 6,034 over the two years, an 18 percent decrease.
  • The same proportion of 6th- through 12th-grade students, 11.6 percent, were retained in their grades during the first and second years of the project. But the rate for middleschool students fell from 8.8 percent to 6.6 percent and increased from 13.7 percent to 15.7 percent for high-school students.
  • About 32 percent of students in grades 6 through 12 failed one or more courses in the first year, and nearly 41 percent failed in the second year, with the highest increases in the 9th through 12th grades.
  • Black students failed courses at higher rates than whites both years; 36.9 percent failed one or more in the first year, compared with 26.7 percent of the white students.
  • The high-school dropout rate, which factored in students unaccounted for as well as presumed dropouts, declined by 4.9 percentage points, from 18.1 percent in the first year to 13.2 percent in the second year, while the middle-school dropout rate declined by 1.4 percentage points, from 9.5 to 8.1.
  • White students had higher dropout rates than blacks--a finding that Mr. Schneider said in some cities may reflect the lack of opportunities outside the schools for black youths--and male students had higher rates than female students.
  • Average daily attendance rates in the four cities remained fairly stable over the two years, with slight improvements among middle-school students and slight declines among high-school students.

'Platform' for Policy

It is "premature," Mr. Schneider warned, to judge a five-year effort using data from the first two years. Third-year data isolating results from pilot New Futures schools will offer a better gauge, he said.

But he speculated that the focus on at-risk youths in the project cities and efforts to address their needs beyond the classroom may have contributed to some modest gains.

"It is conceivable that, because of a greater awareness of needs, the general population may in fact be affected in positive ways," he said.

He cited, for example, the reduction in dropout rates across grades and better performance on some measures for middle-school students than for high-school students.

"Since this is largely a middle- school initiative," Mr. Schneider said, "it's a hopeful sign."

Pointing to the large disparities between black and white student achievement and the high numbers of students still failing, being retained, and dropping out, however, he said the most "powerful" role of the data has been to offer a "platform for the development of policies to address the need."

"What turned out to be most valuable," said lra Cutler, the associate director of the foundation and the director of New Futures, "was how much attention [it] has focused on kids and their families and problems in the community that need to be fixed."

The data-collection effort may have also given project officials a more realistic view of how much they can accomplish in five years.

Kathy Emery, executive director of the collaborative managing the New Futures program in Dayton, noted that the Casey Foundation has "asked all the cities to relook at those numerical goals and decide whether we really want to hang on to the high numbers" they set initially.

Vol. 11, Issue 04, Page 12

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