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Magnet Schools Seem To Have Little Impact On Student Achievement

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New Orleans

Magnet schools appear to have little effect on academic achievement, preliminary findings from a new study suggest.

The findings, which were released here last week during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, are part of a larger research effort sponsored by the National Science Foundation to explore how the organization of schools and classrooms affects student achievement.

As part of the project, researchers used data from the National Education Longitudinal Study, a federal study of 25,000 8th-grade students begun in 1988, to gauge the impact of magnet schools on students' education. The students' progress was examined two years later when they were sophomores and again in their senior years. The 12th-grade data have not yet been analyzed, however.

Approximately 20 percent of the NELS students attended high schools that had been identified by their principals as magnet or choice schools, a much higher percentage than observers typically would expect to find.

The researchers also found that African-American and Hispanic students were overrepresented in magnet programs.

"There were twice as many African-American and Hispanic students attending magnet schools than you would have expected by chance,'' said Kathryn A. Schiller, a research assistant at the University of Chicago and a co-director of the study with Barbara Schneider, a senior social scientist at the the National Opinion Research Center.

Caution About Findings

By the time they reached 10th grade, the study found, students in the magnet schools had taken more college-preparatory mathematics courses than their peers in neighborhood schools had, and as many as students in the same cohort who were attending Roman Catholic schools had.

Moreover, they aspired to go to college at much higher rates than students in either assigned public schools or Catholic schools.

But over the course of their high school years, they showed no growth in achievement as measured by multiple-choice questions in the NELS study.

"If we're going to think of magnet or choice schools as a way of changing schools, we have to take into account that we're not seeing significant growth,'' Ms. Schiller said.

But conference-goers cautioned against reading too much into the findings. They noted that principals may have listed their schools as magnets merely if they had smaller magnet programs within the schools. Moreover, the study failed to distinguish between types of magnet schools.

"Without these kinds of solid econometric factors we just aren't going to know about achievement,'' said John Witte, a University of Wisconsin political-science professor.

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