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Study Reveals Benefits, Shortcomings In Catholic Education for 8th Graders

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ST. LOUIS--The nation's Catholic schools appear more successful than public schools at closing the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged 8th-grade students, according to a study released here last week during the annual convention of the National Catholic Educational Association.

But the report--an independent analysis of the U.S. Education Department's National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988--also found shortcomings in Catholic education. It cites a sharp disparity between girls' and boys' test scores in some subjects, as well as data indicating that the socioeconomically most advantaged public-school pupils outperform their Catholic-school counterparts in mathematics and science.

Over all, however, in the core academic subjects of reading, mathematics, history/social studies, and science, Catholic-school 8th graders outperformed their public-school counterparts, according to the analysis.

And on that basis, the study offered a "tentative'' conclusion that the educational experience offered an 8th grader at a Catholic school is superior to that provided by a public school.

In qualifying their conclusions, the study's authors--Penny A. Sebring and Eric M. Camburn of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago--noted that their analysis showed that Catholic-school parents have higher socioeconomic backgrounds than their public-school counterparts. In addition, Catholic-school students are more likely to have intact families.

And, they noted, limitations in the NELS:88 data precluded teasing apart the influences of "ability and home versus the educational experiences provided by Catholic schools.''

Room for Improvement

Even though Catholic-school 8th graders scored higher over all in mathematics and science than their public-school counterparts, "in absolute terms there is still considerable room for improvement,'' the report says. In math, 38.3 percent of Catholic-school 8th graders (compared with 40.9 percent of those in public school) performed at only the basic level of math proficiency--the ability to do simple arithmetical operations on whole numbers.

In science, students in Catholic schools did markedly better than public-school 8th graders at the intermediate, but not at the advanced, level.

In both subjects, the public-school students with high socioeconomic status outperformed their most advantaged Catholic-school counterparts. In math, 38 percent of the public-school students from the top socioeconomic quartile scored at the advanced level--mastering simple problem-solving--compared with 30.1 percent of similarly affluent Catholic-school students.

In science, 42.6 percent of the most advantaged public-school students performed in the top quartile, compared with 37 percent of the Catholic-school students.

In addition, Catholic schools showed greater disparity in performance between boys and girls. In science, 30.2 percent of boys, but only 22.4 percent of girls, scored at the advanced level. In history/social studies, the disparity was "stunning'' the report says: 41.4 percent of boys, but only 29.1 percent of the girls, achieved the highest level.

Sex differentials were much lower in the public schools.

According to the authors, the NELS:88 data support earlier research that achievement is more equitably distributed among students in Catholic schools than in public ones.

Consistent across all four tests--reading, math, history/social science, and science--were the findings that:

  • African-American and Hispanic students in Catholic schools performed better than their counterparts in public schools.
  • The gap between the performance of those groups and that of white and Asian students was smaller than it was in public schools.
  • Lower-income students also did better in Catholic schools, and there was generally a smaller gap in performance between the high- and low-socioeconomic-status students in Catholic schools than was the case among public-school students.

Sense of Community Found

The report's data suggest that the "common school effect'' attributed to Catholic high schools by such earlier researchers such as James Coleman and his colleagues at the University of Chicago "might be present in lower-grade schools as well.''

For example, the gaps in reading proficiency between children of different racial or socioeconomic backgrounds were considerably smaller in Catholic schools, the study found.

Among white 8th graders in Catholic school, 7.4 percent were reading below the basic level, compared with 10.4 percent of the Hispanic students. But in public school, the figures were 11 percent for white students and 22.1 percent for Hispanics.

In Catholic schools, 33.3 percent of the Hispanic students were "advanced'' readers, compared with just 19.1 percent of those in public school.

The test-score differences between the most advantaged students and the most disadvantaged in public school were about three percentage points higher in reading than those between the same groups in Catholic schools, the study found.

The NELS analysis also showed that Catholic-school students have a different in-school experience than public-school students do, with "greater exposure to learning through their coursework,'' according to the authors.

For example, Catholic-school students are slightly more likely to take history and social-studies classes. They also take art or music and computer education in substantially higher percentages than their public-school counterparts, and are much less likely to take home economics or shop.

Public-school students, however, do take foreign languages and laboratory science in somewhat larger percentages than Catholic-school students, the study found.

Catholic-school students are also more likely to participate in such extracurricular activities as varsity and intramural sports, science fairs, newspapers, and religious groups, the survey found, but much less likely than public-school students to play in a school band or orchestra.

The study's authors called the findings on extracurricular involvement "significant,'' because "students who are more involved generally perform better academically than less involved students.''

Extracurricular participation, the authors say, is also one indication of the sense of community a school has, something that appeared to be more prevalent in the Catholic schools.

A more positive feeling on the part of Catholic-school students about teachers and a somewhat greater level of interest on the part of the parents of those students also contribute to a sense of community and, in turn, to higher achievement, the report says.

Choice Plan Touted

U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, meanwhile, urged the Catholic educators meeting here to support the so-called "G.I. bill for children,'' a half-billion-dollar school-choice proposal in President Bush's 1993 budget plan. The program would give low- and middle-income parents vouchers of up to $1,000 per child for use at any public or private school. (See Education Week, Feb. 5, 1992.)

Legislation proposing the plan will be sent to Capitol Hill within three weeks, Mr. Alexander said.

The N.C.E.A. also released elementary-school figures here showing that the cost of educating students in Catholic schools remains substantially lower than in the public system.

Per-pupil costs for Catholic elementary schools stood at $1,819 for the 1990-91 school year, or about 35 percent of the $5,208 average for all public schools, according to the study.

The report also shows that the average Catholic-school elementary teacher earns $17,597, nearly half the national average for all public-school teachers.

While that represents a 13 percent increase since the 1988-89 school year, the salary gap with public-sector teachers "broadened substantially,'' said the study's author, Robert J. Kealey, who heads the N.C.E.A.'s elementary-schools department.

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