Ideas & Findings

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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 of school during the 1994-95 school year than did 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 appeared to be faring better in school.

Switching to a year-round school 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 follow the same attendance schedule. Eight focused on multitrack programs, in which students are 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, however, had added days to the 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. The gains were greater, however, in the single-track schools.

Still, she concedes, 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.

Twelve years after researchers Brian Powell and Lala Carr Steelman published a landmark critique of using SAT scores to rank states' education systems, the practice is still widespread. Policymakers and radio talk-show hosts continually cite the scores as a barometer of school success with little understanding of what they mean.

Now in an article in the spring issue of the Harvard Educational Review, Powell, of Indiana University, and the University of South Carolina's Steelman take a second look at the Scholastic Assessment Test--this time using 1993 data. Their conclusion: Ranking states by SAT scores now is just as dicey a venture 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

Vol. 15, Issue 29

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