Student Ambition Exceeds Academic Preparation

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The aspirations of many students may be a mismatch with the paths they have charted in high school. So reveal the initial results from a broad federal longitudinal study.

As 10th graders, most high school students expect to graduate from college, but the study shows that only about half take a rigorous academic program, and that few can perform anything but relatively simple tasks in mathematics and reading.

The students surveyed as sophomores during the 2001-02 school year largely believed that good grades were important, and that their classes were challenging and satisfying, according to the study released in March by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

Even though students with higher expectations for their educational attainment tended to perform better than their peers on standardized tests regardless of their race or ethnicity, the scores of black and Hispanic students still lagged significantly behind those of white and Asian-American 10th graders.

“This report shows that we as a society have done an excellent job of selling the dream of attending college,” U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a statement. “But we have to make sure that we are preparing high school students to succeed once they get in the door.”

Importance of College

The report provides base-line data for the study, which included a nationally representative sample of 15,300 10th graders from 750 public and private schools. It is the first in a series planned by the NCES as researchers continue to follow the cohort whose members were scheduled to graduate in spring 2004. A follow-up study is to examine the activities of high school dropouts in the group, as well as the status of those who went on to higher education and the workforce.

In the initial report, nearly three-fourths of the students said they expected to complete a bachelor’s degree, and more than a third expected to earn a graduate or professional degree. But just 51 percent of the students were enrolled in a college-preparatory program in high school.

Despite the students’ lack of preparation, their survey responses reflect a growing awareness of the importance of a college education, some experts said.

“Students really get the connection between education and their future,” said Naomi G. Housman, the director of the National High School Alliance, housed at the Institute for Educational Leadership, a Washington-based organization that works on school improvement issues.

Studies have documented a growing trend in students’ expectations for attending college, according to the Education Department. Among high school sophomores in 1980 and 1990, for example, 41 percent and 59 percent, respectively, expected to graduate from a four-year college.

Overall, 83 percent of the 10th graders in the study rated getting a good education as among their most important goals in life.

Differences in Attitude

The students were asked a number of questions about their expectations, their school experiences, perceptions of their schools and teachers, and their reasons for attending school. They were also given reading and math tests.

While nearly nine out of 10 showed skill at basic reading comprehension, fewer than half could make simple inferences beyond the main theme of the given text. Just 8 percent of the students could draw complex conclusions from their reading. On the math test, 92 percent of the students could perform simple math tasks, but just two-thirds could demonstrate the use of decimals and fractions. On multistep word problems, just 1 percent of the high schoolers could apply advanced math concepts.

Significant differences existed, however, in the attitudes and achievement results of students based on their socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity.

Although black and Hispanic students were more likely than their white peers to report feeling unsafe at school, the minority students more often reported that their teachers held high expectations for their academic achievement, and that they felt satisfaction from their schoolwork.

The performance of black and Hispanic students on reading and math tests, however, lagged considerably behind those of white and Asian-American students.

Vol. 24, Issue 30, Page 6

Published in Print: April 6, 2005, as Student Ambition Exceeds Academic Preparation
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