THE school reforms begun in 1983 put a lot of American high school students back on track. They also put an unacceptable number of students out of the race. Even as scores on standardized tests rose for average and above-average students, so did dropout rates for below-average students. Finding the right balance, sufficiently challenging courses for all, remains the most sought-after - and elusive - goal of continued educational progress.
``At the same time as our scores went up, we began losing the marginal kids and those with learning problems as well as the seriously disadvantaged kids,'' explained John DeWitt, director of research and grants in Escambia County, Fla.
Florida, where close to 40 percent of high school students drop out, led the nation last year. And national dropout statistics reveal that among certain minority groups the rate has reached as high as 80 percent.
Drawing on the experience of similar systems like Lafayette Parish, La.; Baltimore; and Philadelphia - which are reversing their own dismal statistics for at-risk youngsters, Escambia County began a program to stem the flood of dropouts. Less than 2 percent of the potential dropouts in the program have left school, compared with 35 to 40 percent of those not involved. ``The key to our success is a computer program that is so attuned to the needs of each `at risk' student that it changes their whole attitude toward learning,'' says Mr. DeWitt.
Students spend 20 minutes a day in the ``lab'' at a computer screen, reading problems and answering questions. Although students may be in the same class, they will not be answering the same questions. Each works at his or her own level, which ensures 70 to 80 percent success. If a student makes repeated mistakes, the program gives him easier problems; if he does well, the questions get harder.
``We have students who never passed a test in their school lives now making the class honor role,'' says Gene Evans, coordinator of computer programs for the district. ``As long as they get over 100 problems right a week, they get honored. No one but the teacher knows what grade level they're working at. Their successes keep them enthusiastic.''
The system, designed by Computer Curriculum Corporation of Palo Alto, Calif., not only adjusts to each student's changing needs, but also predicts how much on-line time it will take for a particular student to master a course. Teachers use the weekly lab reports to see how each student is progressing and to ferret out any difficulties. ``We look for students who are stuck at the same level after a week of work so we can take them aside for an intensive one-on-one to clear up the problem,'' explains Mr. Evans.
The young people who enter the computer lab approach their work with the intensity of accountants working against an April 15 deadline. The questions differ from one machine to the next, even when the text to be analyzed is the same, and students like the fact that no one embarrasses them when they make a mistake. ``The machine is fair,'' one student explained. ``I don't have an attitude with it, and it don't with me.''
While some teachers reluctantly admit that their youngsters focus better in the lab than in class, others say the lab time improves classwork. Teacher Lisa Childs reports: ``My ninth-graders answer more questions in class now because they have developed confidence in their answers in the lab setting. It is a shame that more average and above-average students don't get to use it.''
Eventually the school district hopes to provide terminals for all the youngsters in the school system. At the moment, 128 terminals are divided among nine settings, serving more than 1,700 students.
``We've begun with the high school, because that's where the students were most at-risk for dropping out,'' explains DeWitt. ``But we're experimenting with computer-aided instruction in some elementary schools. We hope to catch problems before they trip up younger students.''
The academic gains of the on-line students replicate successes in Maryland and Louisiana. Like their counterparts in Lafayette Parish, Baltimore, and Calvert County, these youngsters - spending 20 minutes a day at a terminal - covered one to two academic years in six months. ``The word is spreading,'' Evans says. ``Until we open more labs, I can't accommodate all the teachers asking to sign up.''
The project in Escambia is supported, in part, by the Private Industry Council, which administers federal money set aside under the Job Training Partnership Act for at-risk students. ``We give the schools $348 each time an eligible kid gains 1 years in math or reading,'' says Jim Boggs, the council's executive director. ``The first year, only two of the 374 JTPA youngsters dropped out. Those who stayed `earned' the schools a total of $83,000 for their academic gains.'' The schools used the money to expand the program.