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A Closer Look at Little Rock

A whirlwind of speechmaking and ceremony marked the recent 40th anniversary of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. But a team of University of Arkansas scholars chose to remember the historic event in the best way they knew how: They conducted a study.

Led by the university's provost, Joel E. Anderson, researchers from 10 departments analyzed how far the Little Rock schools have come since that day in September 1957 when federal troops escorted nine black teenagers up the steps of the formerly all-white Central High.

Not unexpectedly, they found that despite 15 years of court-ordered busing, the school system was not fully integrated. In a city where half the children are white, white students account for only a third of the public school system's enrollment. And black students continue to lag behind white students on achievement tests.

The report from the researchers also contends that the 25,000-student district suffers from a pervasive sense of mistrust between the races, student-discipline problems, budgetary woes, and a lack of encouragement for educators looking to experiment with new instructional approaches.

But the district's problems, the researchers say, are as much a part of the surrounding community as they are of the schools. They recommend convening a community congress of representatives from at least 100 organizations to hash out a vision for the school system's next 25 years.

The report, which Little Rock school officials did not solicit, received mixed reviews there. A former school board member called it overly negative; a current board member praised the university for taking an interest in the city's schools.

Mr. Anderson said the university undertook the job at the request of local citizens.

"The community thought the university should help solve major problems and, among major problems, the schools popped up on everybody's list," he said. The report is available on the Internet at: www.ualr.edu/lrsd/.

Closing The Achievement Gap

Education reformers have long hoped that newer performance-based testing measures, such as portfolio assessments, might reduce the troubling achievement gaps between black and white students that keep cropping up on more-traditional tests.

But a new study suggests that such assessments, while reducing those disparities, may not be able to eliminate them altogether.

The study, published this month in the Harvard Educational Review, involved more than 5,000 1st and 2nd graders in Rochester, N.Y. 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 assessments. They analyzed the data both within and between classes and adjusted scores to take into account the reliability figures for different tests as well as student characteristics such as race and socioeconomic status.

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, on the other hand, 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 kinds of assessments.

"I think the message is that multiple indicators of performance give different groups different opportunities to demonstrate their skills," said Jonathan A. Supovitz, the lead author of the study and a research associate with Horizon Research in Chapel Hill, N.C. He conducted the study with Robert T. Brennan, an instructor at Harvard University's graduate school of education and a lecturer at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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 cooperative.

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," said Douglas Mitchell, a professor of education at the University of California, Riverside, and the director of California Educational Research Cooperative, an organization 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 the amount of time it takes for students to move from one level of fluency to another, the CERC researchers employed "survival analysis," a technique used by medical researchers, to measure the time it takes students to move from one stage of English-language development to the next--with six stages in all. At the lower developmental language stages, the median time is 15 to 18 months, they found. At higher levels, the median time is 28 to 31 months.

Adding the estimates for all six stages together suggests that the average length of time it takes for students to become fluent may be as long as 10 years, the study concluded.

The estimates for each stage come from a more extensive study of 36,000 limited-English-proficient students in Santa Ana, Calif., which offers a variety of methods to help students learn English. But the school district's database tracks students for three years only. More accurate analyses of the time it takes to achieve fluency, the researchers warn, will only come with longer-term longitudinal studies.

To take a look at the full study, go to www.education.ucr.edu/cerc.

Vol. 17, Issue 08, Page 19

Published in Print: October 22, 1997, as Research Notes
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