A three-year evaluation by the Montgomery County school system found that students at the county's racially mixed "magnet" elementary schools have outperformed their peers at other schools in reading and math by the end of the sixth grade.
County school researchers said the findings have important implications nationally for the type of magnet schools established in many jurisdictions as a tool for desegregation.
Educational researchers elsewhere said the results supported earlier findings that the decidedly colorblind, nurturing "climate" of magnet schools can be encouraging to students of all backgrounds. But they said there has been little conclusive research about the academic benefits of the magnet system.
In Montgomery -- where the magnet curriculums were designed primarily to attract white students to predominantly minority schools in the southern part of the county -- the study compared achievement at 14 magnet schools with that at 13 regular schools. But it also went beyond test scores to highlight what researchers called a high degree of student satisfaction and parent involvement at the magnet schools.
Researchers also found that magnet teacher expectations about pupils were relatively unclouded by race, in contrast to some national studies of teacher attitudes indicating that teachers sometimes expect less of nonwhite children.
On standardized reading tests, sixth graders of all races at Montgomery's 14 magnet elementary schools correctly answered, on average, about 10 percent more of the questions than their counterparts at other elementary schools, the study said. For math questions, they gave correct answers to about 18 percent more of the problems.
The researchers said they could only speculate about the reasons for the better test scores, but said there was strong evidence pointing to magnet program features such as special curriculum and extra resources.
The "positive climate" in the classroom also is considered a strong factor, said John Larson, principal author of the study.
In a related analysis, researchers found that teacher expectations in the magnet schools were essentially the same for black, white and Hispanic students, at different levels of achievement. Teacher expectations for students of Asian ancestry, who tended to perform better than their peers at each grade level, were found to be slightly higher, researchers said.
The "distinctively positive magnet school findings" -- based on scores on standardized county and national achievement tests taken between 1983 and 1986 and on attitude surveys of students, teachers and parents -- have not been duplicated this broadly in studies of magnet schools elsewhere in the country, Larson said.
School researchers are hopeful that the findings may signal the beginning of a trend of academic excellence resulting in part from the learning climate established in magnet schools, Larson and others said. Earlier studies, in Montgomery and elsewhere, indicated only that magnet students were doing no worse academically than students at regular schools, Larson said.
Now, however, "a fair amount of evidence" has developed indicating that students are encouraged to learn in magnet-type schools in which teachers are encouraged to design "their own vision of schooling," said Mary Raywid, an education professor at Hofstra University who does research into so-called schools of choice.
Special academic programs at the Montgomery magnet schools are an outgrowth of a desegregation effort launched in 1976, when school enrollments in some southeastern Montgomery neighborhoods began to turn predominantly black, Hispanic and Asian.
The special magnet programs -- emphasizing math, science, language and interdisciplinary studies -- are now features of the 10 elementaries in the Montgomery Blair High School cluster and at four elementaries in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School area.
The findings of the school system study, to be presented to the Montgomery school board tonight, will be encouraging to parents who may have their children in magnet schools in part for "social good," said Steven Frankel, director of the Montgomery school system's Department of Educational Accountability.
Using hundreds of questionnaires, the study also found that pupils who transfer into magnet schools enjoy school "somewhat more" than children who attend other schools, and that the transfer pupils generally are considered more gregarious. Children in magnet schools tend to develop interracial friendships, considered an important social measure of the magnet schools' climate.
Parents of pupils who transfer into magnet schools tend to do more school volunteer work than parents who transfer their children to regular schools, and white parents tend to be more involved in school activities than minority parents, the study found.