College Aspirations Have Increased, but Skills Haven't : Education: A study finds more students are reaching beyond high school degrees. But math, reading and science scores have held for 10 years.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

American young people aspire to more education than they did 10 years ago, and more high school students are taking courses to prepare them for college preparatory classes, a new Education Department study shows.

But their performance in mathematics, science and reading still has not improved significantly.

The percentage of sophomores who hoped to get a college or postgraduate degree increased from 41% to 50% from 1980 to 1990.

"They are getting the message that you aren't born smart, you get smart by stretching your mind," Education Secretary Richard W. Riley said in releasing the report, "Youth Indicators 1993."

"So there is something to be thankful for as we prepare for this Thanksgiving weekend. More young people are finishing high school and more young people, a majority of 54%, are now taking college preparatory courses."

The percentage of sophomores who hoped to get four-year college diplomas increased to 60% in 1990 from 41% in 1980 and those who want to earn post-graduate degrees jumped from 18% to 27%.

And more students, especially members of minority groups, were taking challenging academic courses in high school.

The percentage of 17-year-old black students enrolled in college preparatory or strong academic programs instead of vocational or general programs increased from 37% in 1982 to 51% in 1990. The same trend was apparent among Latino 17-year-olds, whose participation increased from 28% to 40% over the same period.

"I am happy to say more and more of our young people are all too aware that what they learn will define what they earn in the future," Riley said.

But paying for that education has become more expensive. After adjustments for inflation, charges for tuition, room and board increased 44% at public four-year colleges and 64% at private four-year colleges from the 1980-1981 to 1992-1993 school years.

The proportion of all 16- to 24-year-olds who dropped out of high school before graduation fell slightly from 1980 to 1991, but the dropout rate for blacks decreased more notably, from 19% in 1980 to 14% in 1991. The Latino dropout rate, however, was near its highest level, at more than 35%. The percentage of dropouts 16 to 24 who were employed dropped from 44% in 1980 to 36% in 1992.

The study also indicated improved reading proficiency among black and Latino students and a narrowing of the academic gap between them and Anglo peers.

But while young people seemed to be more conscious than ever of the importance of higher education to their future, their performance in key subjects like mathematics and science did not improve significantly compared with their counterparts 10 years ago.

"Our schools are holding their own in terms of reading, writing, math and the sciences," Riley said. "But we cannot be satisfied just holding our own in the new global economy."

Riley said that the country must press forward with education reform to enable young people to achieve their education dreams and compete with their peers in other countries.

One study showed American 13-year-olds performing worse in math and science than many of their future economic competitors, including those in Korea, Hungary, Taiwan, the nations of the former Soviet Union and Canada.

The report, a compilation by the National Center for Education Statistics of data from various studies, also noted significant changes in non-academic aspects of young people's lives.

The transition from childhood to independence has lengthened strikingly over the last dozen years. The proportion of young adults living at home grew from 48% in 1980 to 54% in 1992. The report also demonstrated notable trends in drug use. The percentage of seniors who reported using illicit drugs declined from 65% to 41%.

The percentage of seniors who said they had used marijuana within 30 days before the survey declined particularly sharply from 19% in 1980 to 8% in 1992. Reported alcohol use in the 30 days before the survey also dropped from almost three-quarters of the class in 1980 to just half in 1992.

One Education Department study showed that money was more important to sophomores in 1990 than to their counterparts 10 years earlier. Another showed that high school seniors in 1991 were more likely to agree with their parents on topics as varied as racial issues, dating behavior and religion than were seniors in 1975.

Trends Among U.S. Teen-Agers

The study found illegal drug use has declined among high school seniors, though alcohol use remains high. Key findings in the report:

Drug Use

Percent of high school seniors reporting having used drugs:

Class of 1980 1992 Cigarettes 71% 61.8% Alcohol 93.2% 87.5% Any illicit drug 65.4% 40.7% Marijuana 26.7% 15.6% Any drug other than marijuana 38.7% 25.1%

Personal Values

Percent of high school sophomores who believe following values are "very important":

School Skills

Mathematics proficiency of 17-year-olds, by race:

Sources: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics, University of Michigan

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