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. Linden Lane
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Held back

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Trouble in education reform

A "constriction in the education pipeline" has accompanied the three significant reform movements that have swept American education over the past 30 years, reports a team of researchers at the Lynch School's Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy (CSTEEP). The effects can be measured in the student attrition rate between ninth and 10th grade and in declining graduation rates nationwide.

The report, entitled "The Education Pipeline in the United States, 1970-2000," was released in January by LSOE professor Walter Haney, Boisi Professor of Education George Madaus, research associates Lisa Abrams and Anne Wheelock, and graduate students Jing Miao and Ilena Gruia. The purpose of the study was to identify dropout rates, which are poorly reported by the states, and determine the rates of retention in-grade (flunking), which are rarely reported.

The researchers examined enrollment figures grade by grade, as well as graduation totals, nationally and by state, from school years 1968-69 through 2000-01. They found that the attrition rate for students between grades nine and 10 over this period had tripled, to nearly 12 percent. (Florida was worst in the nation, with a rate of 23.8 percent). At the same time, an already evident bulge in the number of students in ninth grade—figured by comparing ninth grade enrollments with the previous year's eighth grade numbers—grew from 4 percent more students in ninth grade to 13 percent more. Clearly, say the authors, increasing shares of students are being flunked in ninth grade. And this, they say, "[bodes] ill for future graduation rates." In Texas, for example, the results of research previously conducted by Haney showed that 70 to 80 percent of students who failed to pass ninth grade on their first try also failed to graduate in later years.

Haney and his group found that attrition between ninth and 10th grade rose from 3 to 5 percent in the wake of the minimum competency testing movement of the late 1970s; they reported another increase, to 8 percent, following the rise of the academic standards movement inspired in 1983 by the federal report, A Nation at Risk; and finally, a jump to almost 12 percent with the ascent of high-stakes testing in the 1990s.

The researchers calculated graduation rates by comparing the number of 12th graders with the number of eighth graders four and a half years before. With the Goals 2000 Act of 1994, they noted, President Bill Clinton set a national target high school graduation rate of 90 percent. Nonetheless, between school years 1991-92 and 2000-01, graduation rates fell, from 78.4 percent to 74.4 percent. Two states, New Jersey and Wisconsin, achieved the 90 percent goal, but the number of states graduating 70 percent or fewer of their students more than doubled, from five to 13.


THERE IS GOOD news to report at the other end of the pipeline, however, say the BC researchers. Analyzing kindergarten enrollment numbers, they found that from the 1960s to the 1990s, the percentage of children starting school in kindergarten as opposed to first grade grew from 60 to about 90 percent. Compulsory school attendance laws in some locales have contributed to this rise, as has the growing number of working mothers. "A more direct cause," say the authors, has been "the increasing recognition of the importance of early childhood education," going back to the Head Start Program of 1965.

But such positive numbers at the beginning of the education years don't soften the bad news later on, say Haney and his group: "The constriction in the high school pipeline . . . should be viewed as a real national emergency."

Anna Marie Murphy

 

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