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Dumb Jock?: A new study of high school students in North Carolina suggests that the "dumb jock'' stereotype may be off the mark. Roger Whitley, a doctoral candidate in education at East Carolina University in Greenville, looked at data on attendance, graduation, grades, and discipline referrals for 126,700 students at 133 high schools across the state. "For each of the variables we examined, the performances of the athletes were significantly better than those of the nonathletes,'' he says. For example, the mean grade-point average for all athletes was 2.86 on a 4.0 scale, compared with 2.0 for nonathletes. The gap was even wider between female athletes and nonathletes. In terms of attendance, athletes, on average, missed almost six fewer days during the 1994-95 school year than classmates who were not involved in sports. Whitley, a former jock turned school administrator, conducted his study in conjunction with the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. Neither he nor the association, however, offers any explanations for why student athletes seem to fare better than others in school.


Not Too Big, Not Too Small: The ideal high school enrolls 600 to 900 students--no more and no less, says a study released at this year's meeting of the American Educational Research Association. "Students learn less in small schools,'' said Valerie Lee, an associate professor of education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "And in large high schools, especially those enrolling over 2,100 students, they learn considerably less.'' Lee and her co-author, Julia Smith of the University of Rochester in New York, based their conclusions on a study of nearly 10,000 students in 789 public, Roman Catholic, and elite private high schools. Using data from the National Education Longitudinal Study, a federally supported testing program that is following 24,000 students, the researchers examined the test scores of the same students as they moved from 8th to 10th to 12th grade. What they found was that the relationship between higher test scores and smaller schools is not a linear one. Some schools are either just too small and resource-poor to support learning or too large and impersonal. "Moreover, size seems to matter more for some students than others,'' Lee said. "In schools enrolling large numbers of minority and low-income students, learning falls off sharply as the schools become larger or smaller than the ideal.'' The reality, however, is that most high schools--especially those in urban areas with high concentrations of disadvantaged students--enroll more than 900 students. A reasonable solution, according to the researchers, might be to create schools-within-a-school. But they also offered two cautions for educators looking to try this approach: Don't make the newly created schools too small, and don't make them into "specialty shops'' for select groups of students.


Year-Round Schooling: Switching schools to a year-round schedule can improve student achievement--if only slightly. So says Carolyn Calvin Kneese, a researcher at the University of Houston. Kneese analyzed findings from 15 studies on year-round education that have been conducted since 1982. Two of the studies looked at single-track, year-round programs in which all students followed the same attendance schedule. Eight focused on multitrack programs, in which students were assigned to one of several tracks operating on staggered schedules. Multitrack programs usually are put in place to ease overcrowding, while single-track programs are sometimes advocated as a way to improve learning by cutting down on long breaks between school sessions. In the rest of the studies, findings from both types of programs were lumped together. (None of the schools studied had added days to the regular school calendar.) Reporting in the winter issue of the Journal of Research and Development in Education, Kneese says both types of programs produced a slight positive effect on student achievement but that the gains were greater in the single-track schools. She concedes, however, that the improvements were not strong enough to merit calling year-round schooling a sure-fire solution to schools' problems. Most of the studies, for example, were conducted after the new schedules had been in place only a year. "Future studies need to be longitudinal and to span at least four years of implementation,'' Kneese advises.


State SAT Rankings: Twelve years after researchers Brian Powell and Lala Carr Steelman published a landmark critique of ranking states according to their SAT scores, the practice is still widespread. A range of people--from policymakers to radio talk-show hosts--continue to cite the scores as a barometer of school success with little understanding of what they actually mean. Now, in an article published in the spring issue of the Harvard Educational Review, Powell (of Indiana University) and Steelman (of the University of South Carolina) take a second look at the Scholastic Assessment Test--this time using 1993 data. Their conclusion: Ranking states by SAT scores is just as dicey a venture now as it was the last time they looked. The researchers found once again that such rankings change dramatically once the participation rates in states and the class rank of the test-takers are taken into account. Alaska, Colorado, and Connecticut, for example, would see their standings improve, while Alabama, Arkansas, and Kentucky would suffer a drop in status. "The reason is simple,'' they write. "In states where the percentage of students taking the SAT is high, the proportion of less motivated or low-achieving students taking the test is also high, thus yielding a lower average state SAT score.'' What is more, Powell and Steelman found a direct relationship between higher per-pupil spending and high SAT rankings--contrary to other researchers' claims that money makes little difference in student achievement. "Whether we rely upon the percentage of eligible test-takers or class ranking,'' the authors say, "we should at the very least adjust for the vast variation between states in the different groups of students taking the test.''

--Debra Viadero

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