ERIC Identifier: ED289658
Publication Date: 1987-12-00
Author: Edington, Everett D. - Koehler, Lyle
Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools Las Cruces NM.
Rural Student Achievement: Elements for Consideration. ERIC
Many educators, state board of education members, legislators, and the
general public believe that students from smaller and rural schools receive an
education that is inferior to that of students from larger urban or suburban
schools. Until recently, there has been little empirical evidence to challenge
that view. Now, however, a growing body of work has begun to examine how well
students perform in and after graduation from rural schools. Although the
results are far from conclusive, they do suggest that some generally held
beliefs about rural student achievement need review, if not revision.
ARE THERE RURAL-URBAN DIFFERENCES IN STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT?
A comparison of the performance on standardized achievement tests of students
from small, usually rural, schools with those form larger, often urban,
institutions has not produced definitive results. Several studies have not found
any significant differences between the two groups. In research completed in the
state of New York, Monk and Haller (1986) found that students from smaller
(often rural) schools achieved as well as students from larger schools.
Kleinfeld and others (1985), in their Alaska study, did not find that high
school size determined the quality of a student's education, experience, or
achievement on standardized tests. Moreover, in one New Mexico study, which
looked at factors affecting performance of selected high school students, those
attending schools in rural areas performed as well as those in urban locales
(Ward and Murray, 1985).
Other scholars have found, however, that rural-urban differences do exist.
One study in Kansas found that the ACT scores of rural students were two points
lower than scores of urban students in each of the categories on the ACT
(Downey, 1980). Another examination of student performance in Hawaii public
schools found sub-standard achievement to be a pattern in rural areas (McCleery,
1979). Other research on achievement in social studies for 13-year-olds pointed
out that rural students, comparatively speaking, did well on objective tests
focusing on skills, but not as well on objective tests that focused on factual
learning (Easton and Ellerbruch, 1985).
ARE RURAL-URBAN DIFFERENCES BEING APPROPRIATELY MEASURED?
The fact that observers, using statistically based instruments, come to quite
different conclusions suggests that rural-urban might be an inappropriate
dichotomy. Students in large, urban school settings are generally recognized as
a diverse population. It is not, however, usually recognized that rural students
also are far from uniform and include the children of Black sharecroppers,
Appalachian mountaineers, Hispanic migrants, reservation Native Americans,
Kansas wheat farmers, relocated urbanites, and many others. Therefore, unless
the origins and life conditions of all students are held constant, no findings
of rural-urban difference are meaningful.
There is some indication that what is being measured in rural-urban
difference studies is socioeconomic status and/or ethnicity. Easton and
Ellerbruch (1985) found that the poorer rural students scored considerably lower
on citizenship and social studies tests than did students from upper
socioeconomic urban communities. Another study which held socioeconomic level
and ethinicity constant revealed no urban-rural achievement gap (Edington and
To flesh out rural-urban achievement issues, it is important to consider each
group individually, on its own terms, lest a focus on the larger picture obscure
complete understanding. For example, Kleinfeld and others (1982) discovered
achievement differences between Native Americans in rural village schools and
those attending urban boarding schools. Those students who were able to remain
with their own tribes and families had a higher success rate than did those
operating within the confines of the alien urban milieu.
It is not surprising that students who have less access to diverse reading
matter (either through a lack of availability or restricted purchasing power)
would not fare as well on standardized tests. But the issue is even more
complex, for it appears to be readily assumed that small and large schools have
the same curricula. Yet, Barker's 1985 study of high schools has revealed that
this is far from the case. The smaller high schools had significantly fewer art,
data processing, calculus, psychology, sociology, and advanced placement
offerings. Thus, if rural-urban differences were to be found (after backgrounds
have been held constant), those might logically be assumed to result not from
any factors of desire or ability, but rather from those centered on availability
of information. A case in point is Alaska, where after incredible sums of oil
money were pumped equilaterally into the schools to make even the smallest
technologically modern, students from small and large schools revealed no
achievement disparity (Kleinfeld and others, 1985).
WHAT EFFECTS DO PARENTS AND COMMUNITY HAVE ON THE ATTAINMENT OF RURAL
Community involvement in the educational process seems to have a positive
effect on the achievement of youngsters. This has, however, been difficult to
demonstrate empirically (Downey, 1980; Kleinfeld and others, 1985). One of the
negative aspects found in most accounts is that rural communities possess a much
more limited view of existing occupational roles for rural youth, who then
understandably restrict themselves when going on the job market and on to higher
education (Downey, 1980). Brown (1985) attributes this to low family
expectations of rural students' career options. Such conclusions are, for the
most part, supposition and fail to explain why opportunities presented on
television fail to inform and intrigue.
Kleinfeld and others (1985) have come to a contrary conclusion, proposing
that schools that achieve the best results do exhibit a strong
teacher/adminstration/community partnership and school-community agreement on
educational programs. They also have reported that there is a direct
relationship between quality education programs and the ability of the staff to
work toward an educational partnership with the community. Smaller communities
do tend to generate more community support for the school, with the school
becoming a center for community activity. This, in turn, theoretically provides
the students with a greater feeling of belonging to something in which they can
participate, and thus enables them to develop a better self-concept.
HOW WELL DO RURAL STUDENTS SUCCEED IN HIGHER EDUCATION?
If rural-urban achievement differences are, as some have maintained,
significant, then we can reasonably expect that differences would exist in
college performance as well, with the rural students being less likely to attend
college and to succeed academically and socially. Such assumptions have been
quite widespread in educational circles. The rural deficit model, however, does
not hold up under analysis. Considerable research indicates that rural students
who attend college perform as well there as urban students, and may be as likely
to stay in school. As one example, Horn and others (1986), in a study performed
in seven North Central States, reported that in 1985 fully 59% of all the 1981,
1983, and 1985 graduates were engaged in some kind of educational pursuit, and
44% were enrolled in a four year college. They also found that lack of social
skills is not a factor perceived by rural students as important during their
transition from high school to college. Moreover, their collegiate grades are
comparable to those of urban students. Both Frese and others (1979) and Downey
(1980) found little, if any, difference in academic performance. Downey further
stated that rural youth come from an environment which requires active and
continuous social involvement and they can therefore fit in quite well in the
university community. He also found that where the persistence rate for students
of variously sized high schools was compared, size had little effect. One
researcher concluded that students from rural areas tend to be a greater dropout
risk, but he did not attribute this finding to low grades or social skills.
Instead, he focused on family expectations and socioeconomic status as
parameters (Brown, 1985).
Even if Brown's statistics are borne out by other observers, the dropout
rates must be calculated in a more sophisticated fashion, with breakdowns by
student origins and culture. For example, we need to know whether rural Southern
Blacks enter and achieve as well in college as their urban counterparts, or
whether rural Hispanics, as another example, have lower educational expectations
than urban Hispanics. Assuming rural students are more likely to drop out of
college, the scholar must look more concretely at the life experiences of these
dropouts, rather than make easy assumptions. Is, for example, a student dropping
out because he or she cannot make it at college or because family
responsibilities require leaving? Such issues must be addressed so that
educators can move beyond a simple pat belief in the rural deficit model.
The issues surrounding efforts to assess the achievement of rural students
(or urban students, for that matter) on standardized tests are by no means
simple. The old rural deficit model must, however, be discarded as educators
take a new, more objective look at the performance of the many different types
of rural students. It is time to dispose of monolithic assumptions about rural
America. To really assess the small, rural schools' impact on students,
comparisons must be made among students who are matched by origin, background,
and access to information before any meaningful conclusions about rural
achievement can be rendered. Recent composite results prove quite suggestive,
however, since many observers have found little difference in the academic
achievement of rural and urban students, or in their desire to attend college. A
rural deficit model could quite easily be replaced by a rural strength model.
Such a model is suggested by the fact that rural students do wish to attend
college and make adequate grades, even though--if Barker's curriculum
comparisons hold up for the nation at large--rural high school students have
less total access to educational information. It could be argued that these
students are therefore, in terms of their overall progress, achieving more, not
less. Scholars of the future may well find this to be true.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Barker, Bruce. "Curricular Offerings in Small and Large High Schools: How
Broad Is the Disparity?" RESEARCH IN RURAL EDUCATION 3 (1985): 35-38.
Brown, Dennis E. HIGHER EDUCATION STUDENTS FROM RURAL COMMUNITIES: A REPORT
ON DROPPING OUT. Las Cruces: New Mexico Center for Rural Education, 1985. ED 258
Downey, Ronald G. HIGHER EDUCATION AND RURAL YOUTH. Paper presented at the
annual Kansas State University Rural and Small Schools Conference, Auburn, AL,
August 1980. ED 201 459.
Easton, Stanley E., and Lawrence W. Ellerbruch. UPDATE ON THE CITIZENSHIP AND
SOCIAL STUDIES ACHIEVEMENT OF RURAL 13-YEAR-OLDS. Bozeman: Montana State
University, 1985. ED 262 946.
Edington, Everett D., and Helena C. Martellaro. VARIABLES AFFECTING ACADEMIC
ACHIEVEMENT IN NEW MEXICO SCHOOLS. Las Cruces: New Mexico Center for Rural
Education, 1984. ED 271 267.
Frese, Wolfgang, and Others. EDUCATIONAL ASPIRATIONS AND ACHIEVEMENTS OF
RURAL AND SMALL TOWN MISSISSIPPI YOUTH. Agricultural Research Bulletin 880,
1979. ED 247 049.
Horn, Jerry, and Others. A STUDY OF RURAL/SMALL SCHOOLS AND THEIR GRADUATES
IN A SEVEN STATE AREA. Manhattan: Center for Rural Education and Small Schools,
Kansas State University, 1986. ED 280 657.
Kleinfeld, Judith S., and Others. ALASKA'S SMALL RURAL HIGH SCHOOLS: ARE THEY
WORKING? ISER Report Series No. 58. Fairbanks: University of Alaska, 1985. ED
Kleinfeld, Judith, and Others. NATIVE COLLEGE SUCCESS IN THE SEVENTIES:
TRENDS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA AT FAIRBANKS. ISER Occasional Paper No. 15.
Fairbanks: University of Alaska, 1982. ED 239 814.
McCleery, Mickey. STRANGER IN PARADISE: PROCESS AND PRODUCT IN A DISTRICT
OFFICE. Washington: National Institute of Education, 1979. ED 191 631.
Monk, David H., and Emil J. Haller. ORGANIZATIONAL ALTERNATIVES FOR SMALL
RURAL SCHOOLS. Cornell: New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
at Cornell University, 1986. ED 281 694.
Ward, Annette P., and Leigh W. Murray. FACTORS AFFECTING PERFORMANCE OF NEW
MEXICO HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS. Paper presented at the Meeting of the Rocky
Mountain Educational Research Association, Las Cruces, October 1985. ED 271 266.