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Closing The Achievement Gap: Education reformers have long hoped that portfolios and other performance-based testing tools might reduce the troubling gaps in scores posted by black and white students on traditional tests. But a recent study suggests that although these new assessments may reduce those disparities, they may not be able to eliminate them altogether. The study, published in the October Harvard Educational Review, involved more than 5,000 1st and 2nd graders in Rochester, New York. As part of their classwork in language arts, the students compiled portfolios of their work and took standardized tests. The researchers used sophisticated analysis techniques to look at the scores on both kinds of assessment. They found that the difference between the scores of black and white students was reduced by half on the portfolio assessments. But the achievement gap between the genders grew by about the same proportion, with girls far outscoring boys. Students from families poor enough to qualify for federal lunch-assistance programs and students with limited English skills scored equally poorly on both assessments. "The message is that multiple indicators of performance give different groups different opportunities to demonstrate their skills," says Jonathan Supovitz, lead author of the study and a research associate with Horizon Research in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Becoming Fluent: School programs designed to teach English to nonnative speakers may underestimate the length of time it takes for them to become fluent, according to a study by a California research group. The problem is that many such programs are based on studies that take into account only those students who have become fluent. The researchers say the practice is akin to estimating the time it takes to run the Boston Marathon by averaging the times of the first 100 finishers. "But a large number of runners never cross the line," says Douglas Mitchell, a professor of education at the University of California at Riverside and the director of California Educational Research Cooperative, a coalition of 26 school districts. Similarly, a large number of English-language learners do not master the language during the three or four years they receive services from schools. To measure how long it takes for students to become fluent, CERC researchers measured the time students take to move from one stage of English-language development to the next—with six stages in all. At the lower developmental stages, the median time is 15 to 18 months, they found. At higher levels, the median time is 28 to 31 months. Given these findings, the researchers conclude, nonnative speaking students may take as long as 10 years to pass through all six stages and become fluent. To look at the full study, go to www.education.ucr.edu/CERCsite/santaana.htm.

The High Cost Of Vouchers: Many voucher proponents argue that giving parents chits to send their children to the school of their choice would force public schools to shape up. But Stanford University researcher Henry Levin says the price tag for such a strategy would be high: about $73 billion a year. Levin, who is on leave from Stanford this year to lecture at Columbia University, and co-researcher Cyrus Driver calculated that a number of factors would drive up the cost of a voucher system. They point out, for example, that most students now in private schools would want vouchers, too, adding $33 billion a year to the national cost of public education. In addition, record-keeping systems would be needed to track students and to monitor and evaluate schools. Using the Social Security system as a model, the researchers figured that operating such a mammoth data system would cost $2.5 billion annually. And getting all those children to the schools of their choice wouldn't be cheap, either. The researchers estimate that the proportion of students who ride buses to school would jump from 60 percent to 80 percent under a voucher system, adding another $42 billion a year. Overall, they conclude, the extra expenses would add $1,500 a year per student to the cost of public education. Levin is best known for his Accelerated Schools Project, a school improvement approach that calls for speeding up the curriculum for poor and low-achieving students rather than slowing it down, but he is also an economist. The cost estimates are included in an article about vouchers that Levin has written for the summer issue of Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Though the cost estimates are sobering, Levin notes, that doesn't mean the current system shouldn't be changed. "Nothing in this paper should give much comfort to those who might wish to defend the status quo," he writes in a postscript to the article. "In my view, considerable gains in educational efficiency are possible, whether vouchers are the answer or some other type of system reform."

A Brainstorm: Biological research on how the brain develops has little relevance for classroom educators right now, a leading proponent of cognitive science argues in a recent issue of Educational Researcher. John Bruer, president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis, criticizes what he considers a recent overemphasis on neuroscience studies in education publications, the news media, and statehouses. Some educators and scientists have suggested that findings from brain research offer guidance for early-childhood education, classroom instruction, and parenting practices. But Bruer argues that not enough is known about brain development and that conclusions about what is known are being overgeneralized and misapplied. "The neuroscience and education argument may be rhetorically appealing, but, scientifically, it's a bridge too far," he writes. As an example, Bruer cites the argument that the preschool years are critical for learning because that is the period of greatest development of the brain's synapses—the connections between brain cells. He points out that this reasoning stems primarily from studies of rhesus monkeys, not humans. Other studies show that this period of developing synapses, known as synaptogenesis, occurs earlier in some parts of the brain than others. For example, it occurs very early in the visual cortex, which controls vision. But in the frontal cortex—responsible for planning and integrating information—it continues into adolescence. For other functions, synapses may continue to form and die over the course of a lifetime. Bruer argues that educators should look for clues to children's learning not in neuroscience but in cognitive science, which probes the mental processes that underlie observed behavior rather than the brain's biological underpinnings. The McDonnell Foundation supports research in cognitive science, much of it directly related to classroom applications. "If we are looking for a basic science to help guide educational practice and policy," Bruer writes, "cognitive science is a much better bet."

—Debra Viadero

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