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Chapter 2: Characteristics of Schools

Although individual student characteristics have been shown to influence academic indicators—such as high school and college completion rates (Adelman 2006; Brady, Owings, and Quinn 1992; Brooks-Gunn and Duncan 1997; Horn and Berktold 1999; Nunez and Cuccaro-Alamin 1998)—school-level factors (e.g., school poverty and segregation) may also contribute to differences in educational outcomes for males and females within and across racial/ethnic groups. For example, using the percentage of a school's enrollment that is eligible for the National School Lunch Program's free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) as the measure of school poverty, in 200708 some 68 percent of 12th-graders in high-poverty schools graduated with a diploma, compared with 91 percent of 12th-graders in low-poverty schools (Aud et al. 2010). Also in that year, about 28 percent of high school graduates from high-poverty schools attended a 4-year institution after graduation, compared with 52 percent of high school graduates from low-poverty schools.

The concentration of various racial/ethnic groups at high-poverty and other schools is also important to consider when examining educational outcomes. In 200708, for instance, about 14 percent of students attending high-poverty elementary schools were White, 34 percent were Black, 46 percent were Hispanic, 4 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander, and 2 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native. At low-poverty elementary schools, average student enrollment was 75 percent White, 6 percent Black, 11 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and 1 percent American Indian/Alaska Native (Aud et al. 2010). Some studies suggest that the number of schools serving mostly racial/ethnic minorities and lower income students is increasing and that these schools tend to be organized and operated differently than those serving higher income or predominantly White students (Clotfelter 2001, 2004; Frankenberg et al. 2003; Rumberger and Palardy 2005).

There is further evidence that school-level socioeconomic status (SES) may have a greater effect on academic growth and achievement than does individual student-level SES. (Rumberger and Palardy 2005). However, school policies and practices, such as academic climate and teacher expectations, can serve to either mitigate or increase the magnitude of SES effects. For example, high schools that offer the opportunity for students to take advanced coursework may provide an advantage for students in terms of college persistence. In a study by Horn and Kojaku (2001), students who completed rigorous high school curricula exhibited greater persistence. in postsecondary education than their counterparts who completed core curricula or lower, even when all family background characteristics, indicators of socioeconomic status, and selectivity of first postsecondary institution attended were taken into consideration. Another important school program—high school guidance counseling—has received attention for its potential to influence college going for historically underrepresented students. Research has shown an association between students' consistent, frequent contact with guidance counselors and higher levels of high school achievement, college aspirations, and financial aid knowledge (McDonough 2005; Plank and Jordan 2001).

Other school-level characteristics are associated with positive and negative educational outcomes for student subgroups. For example, schools with higher proportions of low-income and minority students—including those with special needs or with limited English proficiency—less frequently make adequate yearly progress (AYP) than schools with lower proportions of such students (U.S. Department of Education 2010).4 To address achievement gaps, school districts and states are beginning to experiment with the use of special schools such as magnet and charter schools in an attempt to overcome these academic challenges with diverse student populations.

To further examine school-level characteristics, chapter 2 investigates the extent to which males and females (within and across racial/ethnic groups) attend alternative, charter, and magnet schools; high-poverty schools; and high- performing schools. Student access to rigorous coursework and guidance programs that provide assistance with college planning and admission are also explored.


4 The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is designed to ensure that all children reach proficiency in reading and mathematics by the 201314 school year. Since its adoption, schools have been accountable for meeting adequate yearly progress (AY P)—the minimum level of improvement that public schools must attain each year under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).