March 01, 1998 5 min read

Tough Course

Urban high school students who take a heavy course load in core academic subjects do better on the ACT college-entrance exam than those who don’t but not nearly as well as students nationally who carry a similar load, a new study by the Council of the Great City Schools and ACT Inc. shows.

The analysis looked at more than 55,300 students from the class of 1997 who took the ACT in the 50 large urban systems represented by the Washington, D.C.-based council. Overall, the urban districts posted an average composite score of 18.7, compared with a national average of 21. ACT exams are scored on a scale of 1 through 36. Composite scores represent a district average across four subjects: math, English, reading, and science.

Urban students who took a sequence of core college-prep courses trailed the national average by 40 percent less than their urban peers who did not pursue such a course load. In English, for example, urban students with core courses in English, math, social studies, and science posted an average score of 19, compared with 16.4 by those with less-demanding preparation. The national average was 20.4. “It is clear from this analysis that rigorous course-taking can substantially close achievement gaps between ACT test-takers in poor urban schools and students nationally,” the report says. “But course-taking alone cannot eliminate the gaps.” Some national testing experts challenged the conclusions, cautioning that tougher classes may not be the reason for the higher scores. “What you can’t tell when you look at those correlations only is how much is due to the actual content of the courses adding to student learning versus the self-selection of more-able students into those courses,” observes Lorrie Shepard, interim dean of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Michael Casserly, the council’s executive director, says the analysis sought to determine the extent to which taking tougher courses could close the achievement gap between urban and other students. “We’ve got an ever-moving bar we’re trying to jump, and the tougher course-taking will help us part of the way over,” he says. “But it’s not going to do all the magical things that have been suggested by some.”

Class Size

Are smaller classes better when it comes to learning? Two preliminary studies on class-reduction efforts in Wisconsin and California offer slightly different views on the perennial issue.

Students in a Wisconsin program designed to help low achievers did better on standardized tests than those in larger classes that weren’t affiliated with the program, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found. The program, called Student Achievement Guarantee in Education, or SAGE, requires schools to reduce to 15 the number of K-3 pupils per teacher, upgrade curricula, provide activities and services before and after school, and devise professional-development plans for educators.

The researchers gave math and reading tests to students in the program during the 1996-97 school year and then compared the results with those from students not in the program. Though both groups started with similar scores, the SAGE students outscored their counterparts at the end of the year. The researchers don’t yet know whether the gains will last or whether they resulted entirely from smaller classes or some other aspect of the program. But project researcher Alex Molnar has a pretty good idea. “I think what we’re seeing is the class-size effect,” he says.

The California study does not yet have achievement data. Instead, it surveys staff members in 89 school districts on the effect of the state’s effort to reduce class sizes, which began with grades 1-3 in 1996-97 and expanded to 4th grade this year. So far, the survey concludes, the $1.5 billion program has resulted in widespread shortages of classrooms and qualified teachers. And although most teachers say the smaller classes are improving education, almost a third say they have not altered their teaching to take advantage of the smaller settings. California Policy Analysis in Education, a nonprofit, Berkeley-based group, is leading a consortium of six research organizations studying the class-size initiative.

The Achievement Gap

Black students make greater intellectual gains in college than white students do, according to a soon-to-be-published study by a group of researchers from Washington University in St. Louis.

The researchers decided to compare intelligence-test scores of black and white students after reading the controversial book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. In that 1994 book, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray suggest that blacks may be intellectually inferior to whites. As one piece of evidence, the authors point to a gap between the scores of white and black high school students on the Armed Forces Qualification Test. The test was given periodically to nearly 13,000 nonmilitary students as part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a national study that has tracked a group of students since 1979.

The Washington University researchers used the same data but analyzed it differently. They looked at two samples of students: those whose education ended at high school and those who went on to college. In both groups, scores on the intelligence test increased more steeply during the high school years for white students than they did for black students. But a different pattern emerged for those who went on to college.

Of that group, the black students improved their scores at a much greater rate than white students. “The data suggest that at least one major factor for that gap in intelligence scores is differences in educational experiences,” says Joel Myerson, a research professor in psychology and the study’s lead author. Black students tend to go to poor-quality urban high schools, while white students are more likely to attend better-off, suburban schools. But students’ experiences at the college level, Myerson explains, are less segregated. The study is scheduled to appear this month in the journal Psychological Science.

—Caroline Hendrie and Debra Viadero