Study Links Course-Taking With Urban Achievement

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Urban high school students who take more core academic courses 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 course load, says a report released last week.

The analysis by the Council of the Great City Schools and ACT Inc. shows that last year's graduating class in big-city school systems lagged far behind national averages on the testing company's exams in math, English, reading, and science. That gap persisted, moreover, across all levels of academic preparation, as measured by the number and rigor of courses students pursued.

"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."

'Generic Measure'

While the report suggests that more-challenging courses directly boost students' scores, national testing experts cautioned that the 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," observed Lorrie A. Shepard, the interim dean of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

She also called the ACT "a very generic measure" that "is not very tied to specific content of advanced coursework."

Michael D. Casserly, the council's executive director, said 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 said. "But it's not going to do all the magical things that have been suggested by some."

The analysis looked at more than 55,300 students from the class of 1997 who took the ACT in the 49 large urban systems represented by the Washington-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 all four subjects.

Urban Gap

Urban students who took a sequence of core college-preparatory courses trailed the national average by 40 percent less than their urban peers who did not pursue such a course load, the study found.

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 for those with less demanding preparation. In math, the average was 19.9 for those with the core courses and 17.3 for those without them.

The national averages in those subjects were 20.4 for English and 20.6 for math.

The report also finds a direct correlation between poverty and lower test scores.

In the poorest urban districts, for instance, the analysis showed that even students taking the most-rigorous math courses still fell short of the national average. That course sequence involves two years of algebra as well as geometry, trigonometry, and calculus.

The report does not break down scores by district. But it says the composite scores of six districts exceeded the national average: Clark County, Nev.; Omaha, Neb.; Pittsburgh; Portland, Ore.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Tucson, Ariz.

First-Time Analysis

Kelley Hayden, an ACT spokesman, said the analysis represents the first time that the Iowa City-based company has reported on how urban scores stacked up to national averages.

The College Board, by contrast, regularly reports average scores for urban students on the SAT, the nation's other widely used college-entrance exam.

Last year, students from high schools in large cities scored an average of 493 on the verbal portion and 499 on the math section of the SAT, compared with national averages of 505 in verbal and 511 in math, on an 800-point scale.

Nationally, roughly 950,000 seniors took the ACT in the 1996-97 school year, compared with about 1.1 million who took the SAT, according to Mr. Hayden and a spokesman for the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., which administers the SAT.

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