Shift to High School Difficult for Many, Study Finds

By Robert Rothman — April 29, 1992 3 min read

“They both had [similar] gains, but they are learning different things,’' Mr. Rock said. “It’s almost as though they are in two different school systems.’'

Despite their higher levels of achievement in 10th grade compared with 8th grade, many students may be academically ill-prepared for the transition to high school, data from a massive federal survey suggest.

Nearly three-fourths of the 25,000 10th graders surveyed said that courses are harder in high school than they were the year before, and more than half said that teachers and rules are more strict.

But preliminary findings from the study also found that students’ achievement in most subjects increased substantially between 8th grade and 10th grade. The gains did not occur uniformly for all students at all levels of proficiency, however.

Leslie A. Scott, the survey director for the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which conducted the survey under contract to the U.S. Education Department, called the findings “somewhat surprising.’'

“You would think that, in a grade-based system, the underlying assumption for each grade would be to ready students for the next grade,’' she said here last week at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. “You would think many students would not report that high school is harder.’'

“I wonder whether these are the effects of transition, which everybody is feeling,’' she said, “or a reflection that elementary, middle, and junior high schools are not readying students for the academic rigors they will face in high school.’'

Ms. Scott added that the researchers would analyze the data further to determine the relationship between achievement and the transition to high school.

Shifting to Public Schools

The data released here were among the first from the first follow-up to the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988, the third major longitudinal study conducted by the Education Department in the last two decades.

Unlike the previous studies, NELS:88 began with a group of 8th graders, in part to learn more about the critical transition from elementary and middle schools to high schools.

The department’s National Center for Education Statistics previously released data from the 1990 follow-up study that showed that 6 percent of the students dropped out of school between 8th and 10th grades.

The new data show that, in addition, a significant proportion of students went from private to public schools during that period.

Some 37 percent of students from Catholic and other private schools, and 15 percent of students from independent schools, transferred to public high schools, the survey found.

‘Cognitive Growth’

The study of test performance, meanwhile, found that students registered their largest gains in science, followed by nearly equally large gains in mathematics and in history/citizenship/geography. Increases in reading-comprehension performance, however, were considerably smaller.

Donald A. Rock, a project director at the Educational Testing Service, which conducted the tests, said the increases show that the period between 8th and 10th grades “is accompanied by considerable cognitive growth’’ in these areas.

But he cautioned that the gains might not continue through high school, when fewer students take more advanced courses.

A closer examination of the results shows that the gains were not uniform, Mr. Rock pointed out.

Asian and white students, for example, registered larger gains in science than black and Hispanic students, and males’ gains occurred faster than females’ in the subject.

‘Two Different Systems’

In addition, the data show, students who reported taking more advanced math courses show greater gains in math, and those in vocational programs had smaller gains than those in academic or general curricula.

The study also found that Asian and white students, as well as those taking advanced coursework, demonstrated larger increases in conceptual and problem-solving areas of math. Black and Hispanic students, by contrast, showed greater gains than their Asian and white peers in basic arithmetic.

“They both had [similar] gains, but they are learning different things,’' Mr. Rock said. “It’s almost as though they are in two different school systems.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Shift to High School Difficult for Many, Study Finds