Tougher school standards enacted by the state four years ago appear to be contributing to better learning conditions and academic gains, according to a study of 17 California junior and senior high schools released Thursday.
The report, authored by two USC education professors for Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), found gains among poor students, as well as high and average achievers. But it stopped short of claiming that the reforms of the Hughes-Hart Educational Act of 1983, an $800-million education bill that contained more than 80 different initiatives, have directly caused the improvements.
"This was not an overall assessment of the impact of SB 813," said USC professor Allan Odden, who heads the Southern California office of PACE, a university-based research center. "But it does answer the question, 'Can it work?' And the answer we found is that it can," given the right conditions.
The California reforms have lately been under attack by Gov. George Deukmejian, who has questioned whether substantial increases in state education funding have paid off, and by a University of Chicago researcher, who suggested that minority students have suffered under the more rigorous requirements.
The PACE study focused on 17 junior and senior high schools--including four in Los Angeles County--that represented a cross-section of students based on socioeconomic level, ethnicity and academic ability. Most of the schools performed at average or below-average levels in 1983, the year the reform bill was passed.
Among the provisions of the omnibus bill were mandates for a longer school day and year, tougher high school graduation requirements, new curriculum standards that emphasize critical thinking skills and higher pay for outstanding "mentor teachers."
The 17 schools studied were found to have implemented all of the most critical reforms, such as the increased graduation requirements of three years of English, two years of mathematics, two years of science and three years of social studies.
Two-thirds of the schools followed the tougher curriculum requirements, and all had lengthened the school day by restoring the sixth period, as well as extending the school year to 180 days.
Standardized test scores rose at all the schools between 1983 and 1986, although some schools still performed at or below the statewide average, according to the study. In reading, the 17 schools advanced at twice the rate of the statewide average, with scores that grew by an average of 2.5%, as contrasted with 1.4% statewide. In math, their scores increased 2.8%, as contrasted with 2.6% statewide.
"These numbers don't sound like much," said Prof. David Marsh, who assisted in the study. "But to move up even a point or two is a fairly good gain."
Gains were made by all levels of students--"those at the bottom, those in the middle and those at the top," the study said.
Marsh also noted that the dropout rate at the 17 schools, which was lower than the statewide average of 30%, had neither risen nor declined significantly between 1983 and 1986. The research team considered this good news, contradicting the fears of some educators that tough new requirements would force many low-achieving students out of school.
Another criticism of the reform movement, that it was elitist and had not addressed the needs of high-risk students--potential dropouts and youngsters who are poor or speak little English--also was disputed. The study found that since 1983, such students have begun to receive significantly more help from their schools in the form of new tutoring programs and other services.
"These kids have not been overlooked," Odden said.
However, the researchers were dubious about the effectiveness of these programs because similar measures have not worked well in the past.
State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig said the report made a "positive statement" overall about the impact of the school reforms he has advocated.
"These schools are different places than they were four or five years ago. There is a different atmosphere, a different curriculum and kids are working harder. . . . I think that is strong support to keep pushing the way we're going. I hope the Legislature and the governor see that the kinds of things they asked us to do in 1983 are being effective."