Cost-Effective Education: When it comes to cognitive growth, students at two-year colleges get as much out of their freshman year as their peers at pricier four-year institutions, according to a report published in the March issue of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. The study, which was prepared under the auspices of the National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, a federally financed research center at Pennsylvania State University, tracked 2,685 freshmen at 23 colleges and universities in 16 states. In the fall of 1992, the researchers paid random samples of first-year students at each of the selected institutions a $25 stipend to take a three-hour battery of tests and complete background questionnaires. The tests were designed to measure reading comprehension, mathematical ability, and critical-thinking skills. That spring, after the students had been in college for nearly an entire academic year, they were paid an additional $35 to take the tests again. Researchers compared the scores for students at the five two-year colleges in the sample with scores for students at four-year institutions that had similar demographic makeups. Regardless of the type of institution, the researchers discovered "general parity'' in the adjusted, end-of-year test scores. "If you take a look at the research, we're getting more and more evidence that there's parity, and two-year colleges are cheaper and more convenient,'' says Ernest Pascarella, a professor of higher education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the lead researcher for the project. "For students with limited financial resources, these schools might offer a cost-beneficial way of getting their first year or two of postsecondary education.'' Pascarella said the researchers do not know why the two-year colleges seem to be doing as good a job as more prestigious four-year institutions. He speculated, however, that the two-year colleges may focus more on teaching than do major universities where professors are also expected to conduct and publish research.
Reforms Take Hold: A new nationwide study of middle-level education has found that the schools serving young adolescents are gradually changing for the better. Over the past four years, Jerry Valentine, a professor of education at the University of Missouri, and a small team of researchers analyzed millions of pieces of data from some 500 of the nation's 12,000 junior high and middle schools. The team found that a growing number are using interdisciplinary and team-teaching techniques recommended by reformers. The percentage of schools trying out these methods rose from 33 percent in 1989 to 57 percent in 1992. Valentine notes, however, that some of these schools are only using the techniques with one or two teams of students per grade level, not the entire student body. The study, which was supported by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, also found that an increasing number of schools are offering "exploratory courses,'' required classes that expand students' horizons beyond the traditional core curriculum. Participation in school clubs and other co-curricular activities are on the rise, as well. "We find that if children are not exposed to a variety of things early on,'' Valentine says, "they will not venture out later on in high school.'' But the news was not all upbeat. The researchers also discovered that vestiges of traditional junior high schools remain stubbornly intact. Most middle-level schools, for example, continue to group or track students by ability, despite persistent calls by researchers and policymakers to abandon the practice. Only 18 percent of the schools studied said they no longer group students this way. Most of the others said they were planning to eliminate tracking or were studying the possibility.
--Gregory Byrne and Debra Viadero