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Student Preparation Seen to Fall Short of College Expectations

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Even though more than 80 percent of the 80,000-plus high school students responding to a recent survey expect to go to college after graduation, far fewer are shouldering the kind of academic preparation they need to succeed there, the survey results suggest.

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“I think our data give a wake-up call to high schools to say we need to make our courses more challenging,” said Martha M. McCarthy, the director of the High School Survey of Student Engagement, which is conducted every spring by Indiana University Bloomington. This year’s results were released Aug. 17.

The survey found, for instance, that:

• Half the students devote more than four hours a week to preparing for their classes. That’s about half the time that a similar proportion of respondents spend socializing with friends each week.

• More than a third of the students said they had not written any papers more than five pages long the entire school year.

• Almost three-fifths said most of their classes were regular- or general-track courses, rather than college-prep or college-level studies.

• Only 53 percent of the students said they put “a great deal of effort” into their schoolwork.

The survey, released at a time when national attention is focused on improving high schools, is the latest in a series of reports suggesting a mismatch between the work that students do in high school and their postsecondary ambitions.

Indiana University researchers cautioned, though, that their survey respondents were not scientifically sampled. Schools and districts in 19 states volunteer for the study, which was begun in 2003, in order to use the feedback to make improvements in their own high school programs. The national statistics are intended to provide a backdrop to help local communities determine how they measure up.

Still, with a 70 percent response rate and a demographic mix that seems to mirror the national high school population, the survey may provide a rough indicator of the climate in most high schools, according to Ms. McCarthy.

Gender Differences

The study also found significant gender differences in the degree to which students were engaged in their schooling. “Almost down the line,” said Ms. McCarthy, “women studied more, valued the things they did more, and took more pride in their work.” Of students who strongly disagreed that teachers supported and respected them, 65 percent were male.

Asked to choose an area that their schools emphasize, more of the students chose athletics than academic excellence. Seventy-two percent said that their schools place a “substantial” emphasis on athletics, and 63 percent chose academics.

“I think if you asked teachers that question, they’d say, ’Oh, that’s not true,’ “ Ms. McCarthy said. “But, in focus groups, students said, ’Well, if you look at trophy cases, you’ll see all the athletic trophies, but you won’t see one for the quiz bowl.’ “

The researchers said they were surprised to find that just 55 percent of students reported feeling safe at school. The proportion was especially low for African-American girls, only 39 percent of whom said they felt safe.

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