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Published in Print: September 16, 1998, as Feature: Research Notes

Feature: Research Notes

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College: Who Has Access?

Students with high test scores but few financial resources are less likely to attend college than high-achieving students whose families are classified as middle- and high-income, a U.S. Department of Education study concludes.

To examine factors involving access to higher education, the study used data from the National Education Longitudinal Study, which has followed more than 13,000 students since 1988, when they were in the 8th grade.

Only about 44 percent of students from low-income families attended college, while 69 percent of students from middle-income families and 86 percent from high-income families pursued higher education, according to the study released last month.

Fifty-seven percent of the high-achieving, low-income students reported that they could not afford school and needed to support their families instead.

Other important factors in deciding whether to enroll in college included students' prior expectations for their educational future, the difficulty of their high school courses, and lifestyle factors such as alcohol use or television watching.

A majority of those who expect to go on to college do so, the study found. Seventy-three percent of all 8th graders who said they wanted to enroll entered college; as did 83 percent of 8th graders who reported they would like to earn a master's degree or higher.

Not surprisingly, students who took difficult high school courses were more likely to pursue higher education. Seventy-six percent of low-income students who took Algebra II attended college, compared with only 32 percent of those students who did not take the class.

Moreover, only 46 percent of low-income students took geometry, while 69 percent of middle-income and 82 percent of high-income students did so.

Information about ordering copies of the report, "Factors Related to College Enrollment," is available from the Education Department's Planning and Evaluation Service at (202) 401-3630.

Magnet Schools

Here's one way parents in urban areas might be able to inoculate their teenagers against dangerous habits and risky behavior: Enroll them in a career-magnet high school.

A report scheduled to be published in December by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education compares graduates of career-magnet high schools with their peers at comprehensive public high schools. It suggest that the magnet students are much less likely to have been in a fight, to drink heavily, to smoke, and to have gotten someone pregnant or become pregnant themselves.

Graduates of the magnet programs, which combine college preparation with training in careers such as nursing, laboratory work, computer science, and accounting, also earned on average more high school and college credits than other students.

The researchers collected data on nearly 9,200 students who applied to 59 magnet schools in an unnamed urban district. They also interviewed 110 students who were either enrolled in those programs or had unsuccessfully applied.

Among their other findings:

  • Even though the families from both types of schools were matched in terms of income, career-magnet students were more likely to say that their parents were willing to support their college plans.
  • Career-magnet schools were less successful with academically weak students. Only 35 percent of career-magnet students graduate on time, compared with 41 percent of their counterparts at comprehensive high schools.
  • Magnet students were more likely to socialize with students from their schools, rather than with neighborhood peers.

Researchers attributed the schools' success to their ability to instill "career identities" in their pupils.

"What we're saying is the standard view of high schools as being places where one should go to further one's general education before specializing is probably wrong," says Robert L. Crain, the project's lead researcher.

Information on the study is available from the center at the University of California, Berkeley: (800) 762-4093.

Teenage Decisionmaking

Exasperated parents and teachers have long criticized teenagers for acting on their emotions, rather than thinking out the consequences of their actions. Now a new study suggests that teenagers can't help it. They're captives to their own biology.

Researchers at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., used harmless brain-imaging techniques to study the brains of 16 adolescents ranging in age from 9 to 17 and 24 adults between the ages of 20 and 40. The teenagers, they found, processed emotions in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for instinct and "gut reactions." In the adults, however, the processing went on in the rational, frontal part of the brain.

"Adult brains use the frontal lobe to rationalize or apply brakes to emotional responses," said Dr. Deborah Yurgelin-Todd, the study's lead researcher and the director of neuropsychology and cognitive neuroimaging at the psychiatric hospital's brain-imaging center. "Adolescent brains are just beginning to develop that ability."

In the study, which is not yet complete, the adults and teenagers viewed pictures of faces displaying fear while researchers measured their brain activity. Besides showing more amygdala activity, almost all of the teenagers incorrectly identified the emotions shown in the pictures.

Philadelphia Reforms

The Philadelphia school district is making steady, but uneven, progress in overhauling its schools, a recent evaluation concludes.

The report looks at the package of reforms, known as Children Achieving, introduced by Superintendent David W. Hornbeck and implemented with help from a $50 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation. The nation's sixth-largest district was among a handful of urban districts to win such grants in 1995 for comprehensive reforms of their schools.

This summer, a collaborative of three Philadelphia-based research groups--the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, Research in Action, and the OMG Center for Collaboration in Learning--released a report on the district's progress in the second year of that five-year effort.

On the plus side, the researchers found, test scores over the 1996-97 school year were up over previous years, and all schools had been regrouped into 22 clusters, each consisting of a high school and its feeder middle and elementary schools.

Also, schools had begun creating learning communities of no more than 400 students to provide smaller, more personal learning environments.

But across the district, the report says, understanding of the district's vision for reform remained spotty. New curricular standards were difficult for teachers to use. And teachers criticized the district's new accountability mechanism, which rewards or penalizes schools based on test scores and on attendance, graduation, and promotion rates. Districtwide teacher and administrator shortages also hampered the 213,000-student system's efforts, the study found.

"It is uneven progress, which is about what you'd expect in the second year of a comprehensive reform," said Tom B. Corcoran, the project's principal investigator.

The current study will be available on CPRE's World Wide Web site later this month: www.upenn.edu/gse/cpre/.

-- JULIE BLAIR AND DEBRA VIADERO

Interesting ideas? Send suggestions for possible Research Section stories to Debra Viadero at Education Week, 6935 Arlington Road, Suite 100, Bethesda, MD 20814; e-mail: dviadero@epe.org.

Vol. 18, Issue 2, Page 29

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