March 01, 1997 5 min read

The Wrong Track

It’s one of the toughest questions in elementary education: Should low-achieving students be singled out for special programs designed to help them catch up? Or do such programs relegate children to the educational slow lane for years to come? Two researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore have concluded the latter. Sociologists Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle studied 1st graders who were held back a year, placed in low reading groups, or referred to special education. Those students, they found, remained in lower educational tracks at a higher rate than their classmates throughout the elementary grades. The researchers caution that the study does not show that the educational practices harm students; they just don’t help much. “It infers that some of these placements are long-lasting, so that people better watch out and not do them,” Entwisle says. She and Alexander based their analysis on longitudinal data from the Beginning School Study, which has been following the progress of 790 students in 20 public schools in Baltimore since 1982. Some 22 percent were placed in the lowest reading group in 1st grade, and more than 16 percent were held back at the end of that year. The researchers found that almost three-fourths of the children who were placed in the lowest reading group ended up repeating at least one year in elementary school, and 35 percent were retained twice. Forty-four percent of children who repeated the 1st grade were retained again later, compared with only 6.5 percent of those who were promoted at the end of 1st grade. Henry Levin, a professor of education at Stanford University and the director of the Accelerated Schools Project, a reform network that seeks to bring at-risk children into the educational mainstream, says the findings are in line with other research. “You have kids who come to school and their functioning level, in terms of school-valued activities, is low,” he says. “Schools tend to put these students in placements that slow things down, reduce challenges, and then--guess what?--it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Alexander and Entwisle note that many factors in the students’ lives--both in and out of school--account for their persistence in lower educational tracks. “We know because we have data from when these children began school that the ones who are held back in 1st grade have terrible problems to start with,” Entwisle says. “And so, later on, when children who have been retained do not do well, all that deficit in performance cannot be attributed to the fact that they’ve been held back.”

High Anxiety

Requiring students to pass certain tests before they can progress in school will not motivate all youngsters to work harder and could alienate some from learning, according to a monograph from the American Educational Research Association. The paper summarizes research on motivation and incentives in industry and education. “What we conclude is that it’s simplistic to think just by mandating a high-stakes external exam--… la the European model--this is going to radically change the motivational outlook of a lot of students,” says George Madaus, professor of education and public policy at Boston College and one of the paper’s authors. He cautions that students’ responses to state or national exams will vary based on their ages, the value they place on academic achievement, and whether they believe they can learn. Young children, for example, may be less motivated to do well on the tests because the payoff--either promotion or high school graduation--is too distant. And students who see the exams as insurmountable may be tempted to quit school or avoid learning rather than work harder. The authors assert that intrinsic motivation is more effective than external rewards and sanctions, which may reduce children’s creativity, narrow the focus of the curriculum to what is tested, and encourage students to concentrate on test performance instead of learning the subject. “We can have little confidence in external examinations as a panacea for the ills of American education,” the authors conclude.

The Road Less Traveled

More students might pursue teaching careers in math and science if their college professors didn’t talk them out of it, a new book by two sociologists concludes. Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences, by Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt of the University of Colorado at Boulder, explores why undergraduates abandon majors in science, mathematics, and engineering. It is based on interviews with 460 students from 13 institutions who were pursuing majors in those three subjects, considered doing so, or began working toward a major and then switched. About one-fifth of the students had considered teaching careers, the authors found, but two-thirds of those had changed their minds by the time of the interviews. “We commonly heard that more people would follow their inclination to teach were the pay or prestige of the profession better, or were it less time-consuming and expensive to undertake an education qualification on top of a baccalaureate degree,” the authors write. But they also found that parents, peers, and professors actively discouraged students from teaching careers in those three areas. “Worst of all, the professors--whose support and approval they sought in formulating a career path--effectively defined their ambition [to teach] as deviant,” the authors found. “Faculty were also commonly believed to withdraw from students who openly expressed an interest in teaching.” One white male student, who had switched from a science major, told the researchers: “If you wanna teach science in high school, that’s taboo: You’re treated as an outcast by the faculty here.” Even so, almost 8 percent of the students still planned to teach or had not ruled it out by the time they were interviewed by the authors. In the face of so much discouragement, the sociologists write, that “seems quite remarkable.”