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Japan's grueling college-entrance system is internationally known for putting intense pressure on students--and even driving some to suicide. Now, a new report suggests that, at least as far as suicide is concerned, the Japanese examination system may have gotten a bum rap.

Kangmin Zeng, a researcher at Stanford University, examined the suicide rates of Japanese young people and compared them with those in other countries. Zeng found that the rate among Japanese 15- to 24-year-olds has steadily dropped since 1973, while suicide rates among older people have increased. Over the same period, however, competition for coveted slots in Japanese universities has heated up--a trend that would presumably increase students' exam jitters.

What's more, Zeng says, the suicide rate for Japan's young people may be amongthe lowest in the industrialized world. The United States, Germany, France, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, and Australia all report higher rates of suicide among the same age group. Zeng also found no increase in suicide rates during the months of February and March when exam pressures are at their peak.

"Unlike what some critics depict as the relationship of Japan's suicide rate to the exam pressures, the facts tell a different story," Zeng writes in a paper prepared for the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting in April. Still, Zeng admits, a quarter of all youth suicides in Japan are attributed to school pressures--a higher proportion than in many other countries.

Taking algebra in 8th grade can add up to greater mathematics achievement in high school. So concludes a journal article published in the May 1996 Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

Julia B. Smith, an assistant professor at the University of Rochester's Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development, analyzed data on 9,158 high school students who took part in the High School and Beyond Study, a federally sponsored longitudinal research project.

Compared with peers who took no algebra until high school, Smith found, early algebra-takers had enrolled in more advanced math classes by their senior year and were scoring higher on standardized math tests.

Even when students from both groups exhibited similar mathematical knowledgeat the beginning of 10th grade, the students who took 8th-grade algebra still came out ahead two years later.

Part of what might be happening,the researcher hypothesizes, is thatearly exposure to algebra gives studentsa "credentialing advantage," in the way that academic degrees and diplomas do. Students are effectively socialized into taking more advanced math--and, thus, learning more--regardless of whether they started out mathematically smarter than their peers.

Smith worries, however, about reform efforts aimed at providing early access to algebra for all students. "It could simply shift the credential point to something else," she says, creating a new barrier to more advanced math courses.

Teachers who want students to think they're friendly and interesting might do well to dress down for class, according to three West Virginia University researchers.

Tracy L. Morris, Joan Gorham, and Stanley H. Cohen invited four graduate teaching assistants to present guest lectures to their psychology classes in three styles of dress: formal professional clothes, such as business suits; casual professional clothes, which meant no jacket and tie for men and a sweater and a skirt for women; and, finally, casual attire like jeans, flannel shirts, and T-shirts.

For the most part, the 401 college students in the classes rated the casually clad instructors to be more interesting, extroverted, and sociable than those who were more formally attired. Female students tended to rate male instructors more favorably if they dressed casually, and they gave female teachers higher marks if they dressed more formally.

On the other hand, students were also slightly more likely to rate the casual teachers as less competent--a finding that supports previous studies. But, no matter what their dress, all the instructors still got high marks for knowledge and composure. Students rated them 4.5 or greater on a 5-point scale measuring how well-informed they seemed to be.

The researchers' conclusion: Dressing down, rather than up, does little harm--and may even do some good--when it comes to teaching class. The study appears in the April 1996 issue of Communication Education, a journal published by the Speech Communication Association.

--Debra Viadero

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