ERIC Identifier: ED459037
Publication Date: 2001-12-00
Author: Lee, Jaekyung
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Interstate Variations in Rural Student Achievement and
Schooling Conditions. ERIC Digest.
Rural student achievement provides one important barometer for monitoring
national progress in public education. Rural education often has been discussed
as a deficit model of instruction from which relatively low outcomes can be
expected (Edington & Koehler, 1987). While this perspective has been
reinforced by some local studies, it is not supported by national data (Fan
& Chen, 1999; Lee & McIntire, 1999; Stern, 1994). At the same time,
aggregate national data conceal that the achievement of rural students varies
significantly from state to state (Lee & McIntire, 2001). This Digest
reviews research on the status of rural student achievement and schooling
conditions and describes their variations across the nation and the states. It
examines (1) national trends and interstate variations in rural student
achievement, (2) rural schooling conditions affecting achievement, (3)
interstate variations in rural school conditions, and (4) the challenge of
determining "what works" in rural schooling.
NATIONAL TRENDS AND INTERSTATE VARIATIONS
scores of rural students have been comparable to national averages in virtually
every subject tested (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 1991).
For example, data from the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress
(NAEP) mathematics assessment, when compared with the 1992 data, showed that the
most significant improvement occurred in the rural/small town category (NCES,
1997).(1) In 1996 rural students started to outperform nonrural students on the
NAEP 8th-grade mathematics assessment. Rural students' average math scale score
was 276, whereas nonrural students' average score was 268; the 8-point gap
amounts to approximately one-fourth of the pooled standard deviation.(2)
Despite these aggregate national trends, Lee and McIntire (2001) found
substantial variations among states in rural students' mathematics achievement
and in the achievement gap between rural and nonrural students. First, some
rural states performed at the top, while others performed below the national
average. Second, among the 35 states that participated in the NAEP 1992 and 1996
8th-grade math assessments, 14 states had significant achievement gaps between
rural and nonrural students. Interestingly, rural students performed better than
nonrural students in 7 of these states and worse in the other 7.
The study also found interstate variations in rural students' mathematics
achievement gain over the 1992-96 period (Lee & McIntire, 2001). While both
nonrural and rural students made significant progress in 4 states, rural
students made significant progress in 8 states. Rural students did not make
significant progress in the remaining 23 states participating in the 1992 and
1996 NAEP 8th-grade mathematics assessments.
RURAL SCHOOLING CONDITIONS AFFECTING ACHIEVEMENT
examination of rural schooling conditions that affect student achievement
indicates that rural schools may harbor inherent disadvantages, as well as
advantages. While rural schools are often small and conducive to higher
performance for disadvantaged students, at the same time they may suffer from
poor educational conditions. Sparse population bases often result in geographic
and cultural isolation, limited economic development, and restricted educational
opportunities (McCombs & Bansberg, 1997). Rural schools typically lack the
facilities, physical plants, course materials, and educational programs that
typify larger, more resource-rich districts. Also, rural teachers generally have
less professional preparation (Stern, 1994).
On the other hand, research on small schools (which included a large majority
of rural schools) revealed that small school size can mitigate the influence of
poverty (Howley, Strange, & Bickel, 2000). The resource limitations rural
schools often experience can be compensated for by the supportive ethos found in
smaller communities and their generally smaller schools (Stern, 1994). Many
rural schools feature low student-teacher ratios, individualized instruction and
attention, cooperative learning opportunities, close relationships and ties to
the community, and strong staff commitment (DeYoung, 1987; McREL, 1990).
According to the Schools and Staffing Survey, rural schools tend to be a better
place for learning than their urban or suburban counterparts in terms of teacher
and student absenteeism, safe learning environment, student misbehavior, and
alcohol and drug use (Stern, 1994).
INTERSTATE VARIATIONS IN RURAL SCHOOL CONDITIONS
studies challenge our monolithic view of rural education. Overly generalized
conclusions about rural schooling conditions may obscure substantial variations
among the states (Beeson & Strange, 2000), let alone differences within
states, which are often the result of factors other than policy. Lee and
McIntire (2001) found that interstate variations in rural students' mathematics
achievement relative to their nonrural counterparts were closely related to
interstate variations in key schooling conditions (e.g., instructional
resources, professional training, safe/orderly climate).(3) In their study,
Connecticut and Virginia, two states with somewhat different proportions of
rural students (37 percent in Connecticut and 28 percent in Virginia), showed
opposite patterns of rural vs. nonrural achievement gaps. In Connecticut, where
rural students had relatively better schooling conditions, rural students
performed significantly higher than their nonrural counterparts. In Virginia,
where rural students had relatively worse schooling conditions, nonrural
students performed significantly better than their rural counterparts.
There also has been an effort to compare findings across states using
research conducted in individual states. The best example of this effort was the
synthesis of research on the effects of district/school size and poverty in
seven states (Alaska, California, Georgia, Ohio, Montana, Texas, and West
Virginia). The synthesis found that the effects of size on excellence (as
measured by the level of average achievement) varied substantially by state
while the effects of size on equity (as measured by the relationship between
achievement and SES) were highly consistent from state to state (Howley et al.,
2000). This kind of cross-state comparison has implications for state policies.
State policy agendas for improving the outcomes of rural education should assess
the unique schooling conditions and their effects on student achievement.
During the past two decades, state legislatures have issued numerous mandates
directed toward improving the quality of public education. Rural and small
school districts with low fiscal capacity have often found these requirements
difficult to meet (Hughes, 2000). In some cases, through extraordinary local
effort, full compliance with state mandates has been met. In other cases, reform
legislation has resulted in consolidation and reorganization of rural schools
and school districts (Stern, 1994). The perennial challenge faced by rural
schools is to provide cost-effective and high-quality schooling experiences as
standards and expectations are raised for all students.
THE CHALLENGE OF DETERMINING "WHAT WORKS"
Given that many
rural students are poor and attend schools where instructional resources and
course offerings are limited, the level of their academic performance relative
to their nonrural counterparts is encouraging. Indeed, the literature shows that
rural schools, having achieved so much with relatively fewer resources, can
provide "a model of strength" worth studying and emulating (see Lee & McIntire, 1999, for demonstration with national data).
However, there is lack of consensus about what works for improving rural
student achievement--a situation complicated by the variance in rural schooling
conditions and in definitions of "rural." Also noteworthy is the finding that in
some states rural students scored higher than their nonrural counterparts and in
others they scored lower. The variability of achievement can take place within
states as well as between states, and these differences are often the result of
factors other than policy. Comparison of rural and nonrural education is
challenged by the variations in definitions of rural. The Census Bureau
definitions do not take into consideration the type of employment in the area
and the degree of isolation (see Khattri, Riley, & Kane, 1997, for different
definitions of "rural"). In need of further examination is the issue of how
different definitions of "rural" change the status of rural student achievement.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether rural students' academic growth will
continue to outpace that of their nonrural counterparts.
1. This classification system is based on geographic
characteristics of the schools' locations and is related to the Census Bureau
definitions of metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), population size, and
density. "Rural" includes all places and areas with a population of less than
2,500. A small town is defined as a place outside an MSA with a population of
less than 25,000 but greater than or equal to 2,500. This definition differs
from the "extreme rural" category in past NAEP reports that encompasses students
in nonmetropolitan areas with a population below 10,000 and where many parents
are farmers or farm workers. Discontinuing the classification that combined
community size with employment and SES, NAEP currently reports results by
Census-based type of location. Schools in central city, urban fringe, or large
town areas are classified as "nonrural," and schools in rural areas or small
towns as "rural." In comparison with students in rural/small towns, students in
central city areas scored 16 points less and students in urban fringe/large town
areas scored 2 points less.
2. Results from the 2000 NAEP mathematics assessment were not available at
the time this Digest was prepared.
3. The state profiles of rural and nonrural student achievement and schooling
conditions are available online at http://www.ume.maine.edu/naep.
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