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Are We Still A Nation at Risk?
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Twenty years ago this month, the National Commission on Excellence in Education released A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. According to that report, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. On what did the reports authors base their conclusions -- and do those indicators of risk still exist?

On April 26, 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education released "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform." Said the authors of that now infamous report on the quality of education in the United States, "We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."

Look What She Starr-ted!

Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four children, has been an education writer for more than a decade. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

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At risk, the report stated, was the essential promise of public education that: "All, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost. This promise means that all children by virtue of their own efforts, competently guided, can hope to attain the mature and informed judgment needed to secure gainful employment, and to manage their own lives, thereby serving not only their own interests but also the progress of society itself."

On this, the 20th anniversary of "A Nation at Risk," it seems appropriate to revisit the "indicators of risk" identified by the Commission, and to ask "Where do we stand today?"

Those "indicators of risk" were:

  1. International comparisons of student achievement, completed a decade ago, reveal that on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times.

    The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that "on average, 10 percent of 15-year-olds in the 30-member OECD countries have top-level literacy skills, with which they are able to understand complex texts, to evaluate information and build hypotheses, and to draw on specialized knowledge. In the United States, 12 percent of students are among those top performers; only six countries -- New Zealand, Finland, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland -- have a larger percentage of top performers. At the other end of the scalean average of 18 percent of 15-year-olds in OECD countries (including the United States) show serious weaknesses in the literacy skills needed for further learning. With a relatively high percentage of its students doing well, but a relatively high percentage also doing poorly, the United States, on average, is only average."

    Furthermore, in a voluntary benchmarking study included in the 1999 TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), U.S. 8th graders ranked 19th in math and 18th in science among 38 participating countries.

    According to "Youth at the Crossroads: Facing High School and Beyond," a 2000 Education Trust report, however, "although only one country does better than we do in grade 4 science, by the 12th grade, we outperform only Cyprus and South Africa. Our 12th graders end up in the same position in mathematics."

  2. Some 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension.

    According to the U.S. Department of Education, 47 million American adults are functionally illiterate today, and each week, another 44,000 people are added to the U. S. adult illiterate population.

  3. About 13 percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally illiterate. Functional illiteracy among minority youth may run as high as 40 percent.

    The U.S. Department of Education says that the number of functionally illiterate 17-year-olds in the United States still is about 13 percent. Among minority youth, 44 percent of 17-year-olds are functionally illiterate.

  4. Average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests is now lower than 26 years ago when Sputnik was launched.

    According to "1999 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance," from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), in 1999 average NAEP reading scores were 288 for 17-year-olds, 258 for 13-year-olds, and 212 for 9-year-olds. In 1984, average reading scores were 289 for 17-year-olds, 257 for 13-year-olds, and 211 for 9-year-olds.

    In 1999, average NAEP math scores were 308 for 17-year-olds, 276 for 13-year-olds, and 232 for 9-year-olds. In 1982, average math scores were 298 for 17-year-olds, 269 for 13-year-olds, and 219 for 9-year-olds.

    In 1999, average NAEP science scores were 295 for 17-year-olds, 256 for 13-year-olds, and 229 for 9-year-olds. In 1982, average science scores were 283 for 17-year-olds, 250 for 13-year-olds, and 221 for 9-year-olds.

    Among 9-year-olds, the average NAEP reading scores of students in each quartile range in 1999 were higher than in 1971. Among 13-year-olds, overall gains in reading are evident mostly for students in the upper quartile and, to a lesser extent, in the middle two quartiles. Among 17-year-olds, overall reading improvement is evident only among students in the lower quartile. Overall gains for each age group in the national average mathematics scores are evident in each quartile range.

  5. The College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) demonstrate a virtually unbroken decline from 1963 to 1980. Average verbal scores fell over 50 points and average mathematics scores dropped nearly 40 points.

    According to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), in 2002, SAT math scores rose to a 32-year high, while verbal scores have declined.

    The College Board also reported that 2002 average national SAT scores were 516 in math and 504 in verbal. Scores in 1992, were 501 math and 500 verbal. In 1976, the average verbal score was 509; the average math score was 497.

    The College Board also reported that participation in the SAT continues to expand. Forty-six percent of the class of 2002 -- an all-time high -- took the test. Test taking among minority students also reached a new high of 35 percent.

  6. Both the number and proportion of students demonstrating superior achievement on the SATs (i.e., those with scores of 650 or higher) have also dramatically declined.

    The Center for Education Reform says that in the twenty years between 1975 and 1995, the number of college bound students who scored above 600 on the verbal test slipped 36 percent. The NEAs "Good News About Public Schools in Your State," reports, however, that the proportion of graduating seniors who scored above 600 on the verbal SAT increased by 25 percent between 2000 and 2002.

  7. Many 17-year-olds do not possess the "higher order" intellectual skills we should expect of them. Nearly 40 percent cannot draw inferences from written material; only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay; and only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps.

    The National Education Association (NEA) reports that high school students are earning 22 percent more credits in core academic subjects than they did in 1982, and the number of AP exams [taken] per 1000 students has surged from 50 in 1984 to 100 in 1990 to 178 in 2000 -- an increase of 356 percent in 16 years.

    In 1985-86, says the AFT, just over 7,000 high schools offered Advanced Placement classes; in 2001-02, more than 14,000 schools offered AP classes for nearly 1 million candidates.

  8. There was a steady decline in science achievement scores of U.S. 17-year-olds as measured by national assessments of science in 1969, 1973, and 1977.

    According to NAEPs 1999 Trends in Academic Progress, among 17-year-olds, science scores increased between 1977 and 1999 in the upper and middle two quartiles, but not in the lower quartile.

    In mathematics and science, overall achievement is up. In both subjects, the average performance of 17 year-olds on the NAEP has gone up between10 and 13 points -- about a full grade level -- since the early 1980s.

    In addition, says the AFT, in 1982, only 35 percent of high school graduates had taken a science class beyond biology. By 1998, roughly 62 percent of students pursued advanced coursework, with most of the increase attributed to higher participation in chemistry and physics courses.

  9. Between 1975 and 1980, remedial mathematics courses in public 4-year colleges increased by 72 percent and now constitute one-quarter of all mathematics courses taught in those institutions.

    According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 1999, 10.2 percent of students at 4-year colleges were taking remedial reading, and 39.1 percent were taking one or more remedial courses other than reading; only about half the students at 4-year colleges were taking no remedial courses.

    On the other hand, more students go on to college than ever before. From 1972 to 2000, the percentage of high school students who went to college immediately after graduation increased from 49 percent to 63 percent. The biggest gains were seen among black students.

  10. Average tested achievement of students graduating from college is also lower.

    The Digest of Education Statistics reports that, in 1995, mean scores for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) were 477 verbal, 553 quantitative, and 544 analytical. In 1982, GRE mean scores were 469 verbal, 533 quantitative, and 498 analytical. In 1965, scores were 530 verbal and 533 quantitative.

  11. Business and military leaders complain that they are required to spend millions of dollars on costly remedial education and training programs in such basic skills as reading, writing, spelling, and computation. The Department of the Navy, for example, reported to the Commission that one-quarter of its recent recruits cannot read at the ninth grade level, the minimum needed simply to understand written safety instructions. Without remedial work they cannot even begin, much less complete, the sophisticated training essential in much of the modern military.

    Nearly 20 percent of Americans in the U.S. workforce today are high school dropouts. About 25 percent of high school graduates are functionally illiterate.

    According to Youth at the Crossroads, more than 40 percent of employers test literacy and mathematics skills. Failure rates on these exams climbed from 18.9 percent in 1996 to 35.5 percent in 1998.

Children born in 2003 will graduate from high school in the year 2020. What, I wonder, will their statistics be?


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The opinions expressed in Starr Points are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Education World.