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Report on 10th Graders Torpedoes Perceptions

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Even though many may believe that school violence is increasing, a federal report suggests that the percentage of 10th graders who felt unsafe in school declined from 1980 to 1990.

The report, which was released this summer by the National Center for Education Statistics, synthesizes data from two large national studies--the High School and Beyond Study and the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988. Those studies surveyed a total of 50,000 students nationwide who were sophomores in either 1980 or 1990.

The statistics on students' perceptions of their safety are not the only surprising findings in the 82-page report. It also suggests that students were more motivated to learn in 1990 than they were a decade earlier.

One-third fewer 10th graders in 1990 said they usually came to class without paper, a pen, or a pencil, the report says. The percentage of unprepared students decreased from 15.1 percent in 1980 to 10.5 percent 10 years later.

Likewise, the percentage of sophomores who said they often did not do their homework declined from 22.1 percent to 18.1 percent over the same period.

Of the findings, however, the school-safety statistics have proved the most controversial.

Safety Findings Disputed

According to the report, the percentage of sophomores who said they felt unsafe in school declined by as much as a third during the 1980's, dropping from 12.2 percent at the start of the decade to 8.1 percent in 1990.

Some experts said they doubted the decrease reflected a genuine improvement in school safety.

"The general feeling is that school violence has increased--if not in number--in lethality and in intensity,'' said Arnold P. Goldstein, the director of the Center for Research on Violence and Aggression at Syracuse University.

For example, murder rates for males between the ages of 10 and 19 have increased sharply since 1985, largely because firearms have become prevalent among teenagers. And a 1991 U.S. Justice Department study showed that as many as 9 percent of the 10,000 students it surveyed said they had been victims of crimes that took place in and around their schools over the previous six months. Two percent of those crimes were violent.

At the same time, teachers and school board members, in other national surveys, are saying they perceive violence in schools to be increasing.

John H. Ralph, who as the chief of the N.C.E.S.'s policy and review branch has reviewed several of those studies, said the problem may have to do with perception.

"It may well be that students are subjected to more threats but they've grown jaded and may not be as alarmed or upset by it as they were 10 years ago,'' he said.

The data on students' preparedness for class also runs counter to popular perceptions and findings from other national surveys. In one study, for example, the percentage of 13-year-olds who said they did not do their homework remained steady over the same period.

A Real Change?

But Jeffrey Owings, the chief of the N.C.E.S.'s longitudinal- and household-studies branch, said the new data may reflect an improvement in the academic climate of schools.

"I see the whole atmosphere of schools being more academically oriented than they were in the 1980s,'' he said.

He pointed out, for example, that more 10th graders were taking college-preparatory classes in 1990 than in 1980. The percentage of students in those classes increased from 33 percent to 41 percent.

The 1990 10th graders also scored significantly higher than their counterparts in 1980 on a test of common mathematics items.

Likewise, Mr. Owings said, more sophomores participated in academically oriented extracurricular activities in 1990. The percentage of students in academic clubs grew from 26 percent in 1980 to 31 percent in 1990.

Copies of "America's High School Sophomores: A Ten-Year Comparison'' are available for $7.50 each by writing the U.S. Government Printing Office, Superintendent of Documents, Mail Stop: SSOP, Washington, D.C. 20402-9328. The stock number is 065-000-00572-7.

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