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An A at a high-poverty school may not mean the same thing as an A at a school in a more affluent neighborhood. So says a U.S. Education Department report published over the summer.

The study is based on data from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey of 1988, which included surveys of 8th-grade students, their parents, and teachers, as well as data on their achievement and the schools they attended. For the purposes of the study, the researchers defined high-poverty schools as those where more than 75 percent of the students came from families that could qualify for the federal subsidized-lunch program.

The researchers found that 8th graders from the poorer schools who received mostly A's in English scored about the same on standardized tests as students from affluent schools who earned mostly C's and D's in that subject. In mathematics, the A students from high-poverty schools most closely resembled the D students from affluent schools, according to their test scores.

The report warns that such disparities can be harmful to students from poorer schools. "How fair is it for a student who has received A's and B's all through school to arrive at college and find that he or she is unprepared for college-level math courses?" it asks.

The study does not indicate, however, what kinds of courses those students were taking or whether the courses were more vocationally or academically oriented.

Principals shouldn't try to link shared decisionmaking to other reform efforts. That's what researchers Carol H. Weiss and Joseph Cambone have concluded after five years of observations and 193 interviews at 12 high schools around the country. An upcoming issue of the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis will report their findings.

Principals at six of the schools in the study were implementing shared decisionmaking, a popular reform aimed at democratizing schools and putting more control in teachers' hands. Of those six principals, three were simultaneously trying to institute other major reforms as well. They sought to establish, for example, interdisciplinary courses or block scheduling.

The remaining six high schools were operating under traditional leadership structures. Half of them were introducing other kinds of reforms.

All of the schools moving toward shared-decisionmaking systems experienced conspicuousconflict over the course of the study. But the schools trying to share power and reform at the same time appeared to have the hardest time of all. Although the principals at those schools didn't abandon their efforts to share power, their reform agendas met with stiff resistance. In fact, the study says, they made no significant progresstoward realizing them.

"Our analysis suggests that principals and policymakers must understand the magnitude of the change that s.d.m. [shared decisionmaking] involves for high school teachers," the researchers wrote in their report, "and recognize that establishing democratic processes in schools is a significant reform in itself."

Tracking can cut high school students off at the pass--before they decide whether to go to college, a comprehensive new Stanford study suggests. Researcher Sanford Dornbusch echoes what other researchers have found before him.

Dornbusch and his colleagues surveyed 1,200 students from a variety of academic backgrounds at six San Francisco Bay area high schools. They then compared the students' school records since the 5th grade with their current placements in high school mathematics and science courses.

Their comparison revealed that as many as one-fifth of the white students who scored high on standardized tests and aspired to go on to college had been "misplaced" in lower-track courses. And the proportion of high-ability African-American and Latino students who were not taking college-preparatory courses in those subjects was more than twice that of the white and Asian-American students.

Part of the problem, Dornbusch said in a speech to the Society of Research on Adolescence, was that parents and students often don't know when they have been tracked out of college-preparatory science and mathematics classes. Biology courses with names like "Ecology and You" can hide the fact that the courses will not prepare students for admission to a four-year college.

"These results help us understand why so many talented and hard-working minority students are ineligible for four-year colleges and universities," says Dornbusch, a human biology professor. But, he adds, "if one-fifth of non-Hispanic whites and Asians are also misinformed, we are discussing a major national problem that does not just affect disadvantaged minorities."

--Debra Viadero

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