Sector Differences in Student Learning: Differences in Achievement Gains across School Years and during the Summer

Article excerpt

Public and private schools have been the focus of considerable research, comparing student achievement, attendance, dropout rates, graduation rates, disciplinary incidents, and a variety of educational and prosocial outcomes across sectors. Comparative studies of student achievement have tended to concentrate on the high school years and without any effort to measure gains or losses during specific years. This study concludes that sector differences in learning vary across grade levels and that summer learning rates vary by school sector. More study of sector differences in learning is recommended, especially longitudinal studies that examine seasonal gains across school sector over the entire span of a student's academic career.

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Prior studies of public and private schools have provided important insights into how school organization matters for academic outcomes (Bryk, Lee, & Holland, 1993; Coleman & Hoffer, 1987; Gamoran, 1996). Most quantitative studies of sector differences have analyzed data from two nationally representative data sets: High School and Beyond (HS&B) and the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88). Unfortunately, these data sets share some key shortcomings that limit our understanding of the relationship between school sector and student learning. First, these data sets provide a truncated record of students' academic careers that focuses exclusively on students' secondary school experiences: HS&B provides information about achievement gains from 10th through 12th grade, while NELS:88 examines gains from eighth to 12th grade. Second, neither HS&B nor NELS:88 isolate gains that occur specifically during the school year; rather, the data span multiple academic years as well as summer recesses when students are not in school. Both of these limitations in the data may distort the true relationship between school sector and student learning.

In this study, a data set that circumvents both of these limitations--the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS)--is analyzed and two key questions about school sector and student learning are addressed: (1) do sector effects on student learning vary across academic years in students' careers?, and (2) does summer learning vary across school sector, and if so, does this artificially inflate sector effects on student learning? The results indicate that (1) sector differences in learning vary across grade levels, (2) summer learning rates vary by school sector, and (3) estimates of sector differences in learning that exclude summer learning differences differ from those that include summer learning. Implications for both our substantive understanding of sector differences and future research in this area are discussed.

STUDENT LEARNING AND SCHOOL SECTOR: VARIABLE EFFECTS ACROSS GRADE LEVELS

Data sets analyzed in prior studies of school sector and student learning have two important limitations: (1) learning gains are measured late in students' academic careers, and (2) measures of student learning typically cover only a few years of the many that students spend in school. For example, in HS&B, researchers studied sector differences in student learning gains from the spring of 10th grade though the spring of 12th grade (Bryk, Lee, & Holland, 1993; Hoffer, Greeley, & Coleman, 1985). The NELS:88 data have examined sector differences in learning gains from (1) the spring of eighth grade through the spring of 12th grade (Hoffer, 1998), (2) the spring of 10th grade through the spring of 12th grade (Morgan, 2001; Morgan & Sorensen, 1999), and (3) the spring of eighth grade through the spring of 10th grade (Gamoran, 1996).

In each of these studies, sector differences in gains across these time periods were assumed to be continuous and linear. However, it is possible that achievement gains varied across academic years, and furthermore, that observed sector effects on learning differed across academic years as well. …