Are America's schools really performing so poorly that we must consider wholesale changes in them?

Yes. Schools in the United States appear to be doing a worse job than schools in this country did in the past and than schools in other countries are doing now. We say appear because there are many factors that influence the accomplishments of students besides schools, factors that have never been adequately controlled in analyses of American students over time or in comparisons of American and foreign students. Nevertheless, a host of relevant indicators are disturbing.

The academic achievement of American students may be significantly lower today than it was twenty-five years ago. On the best known indicator of student ability, the SAT test, the average total score of college-bound seniors fell more than 90 points between 1963 and 1981, and remains more than 75 points below its high-water mark today. [2] Although some of this decline is explained by increases in the size of the test-taking population (a growing proportion of the population is attending college), similar declines were registered on many tests that do not present this problem in comparability. [3] Scores on the Iowa achievement tests, administered to students in grades G, 8, 10, and 12, dropped about as much as SAT scores during the late 1960s and 1970s. The same can be said of the tests administered to students at ages 9, 13, and 17 as part of the periodic National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). True, not all test trends over the last twenty-five years have been bad. The gap between minority and non-minority test scores has closed significantly. And during the late 1970s and the early 1980s, depending on the test, American students posted gains in performance. Unfortu­nately, those gains have now stabilized and may well have ended. SAT scores, to cite a clear example of this, have not risen since 1985, and in 1.988 suffered a 2-point fall. [4]

Another troubling trend is the persistently high rate of high school dropouts. Again, the facts depend to an extent on how the measurement is done. If dropouts include those young people of normal high school age who are not in school or out of school with a regular high school diploma – not equivalency credentials – the average dropout rate is currently at least 25 percent, and as much as 50 percent in some cities with high percentages of minority enrollment. [5] If the dropout rate counts only those students who have failed by their late twenties to receive either a regular diploma or high school equivalency credentials, the rate is not as bad – 13.9 percent in 1986. [6] But the disturbing fact about the dropout rate is that however it is measured, it has not declined significantly since 1970. After making great strides in increasing school attendance in the immediate postwar era – half of all adults did not have a high school education in 1950 – American schools have stopped making progress, far short of success, in reaching this modest educational objective. [7]

Trends aside, the accomplishments of average American students today are not very impressive. The NAEP classifies less than 10 percent of all 13 year-olds as "adept" at reading, and less than 1 percent as "advanced." [8] Large percentages of the 17 year-olds taking the NAEP tests answered questions requiring only basic skills or knowledge incorrectly. For example 47 percent could not "express 9/100 as a percent." Only 5 percent could calculate the cost per kilowatt on an electrical bill that charged $9.09 for 606 kilowatts of electricity. Twenty-six percent of the students did not know that Congress is part of the legislative branch of government. The same share could not define "democracy." On other nationwide tests, 43 percent of all high school students could not place World War I in even the broad historical period of 1900-1950, and 75 percent could not place Abraham Lincoln's presidency in the era 1840-1880. [9]

By international standards these kinds of performances also fail to measure up. Eighth grade students in the United States placed next to last on a 1981 mathematics test administered in 12 advanced industrial democracies. [10] The averages of Japanese students, the highest in the world, were about 15 percent higher than the averages of American students. In a 1982 comparison of the best math students in 11 nations, including many nations with which the United States competes economically, American students came in dead last in calculus and algebra, scoring at the same level as the median of all Japanese 17 year-olds. [11] The most recent comparisons tell the same story. A new study conducted by the Educational Testing Service for the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education found American 13 year-olds performing worse or no better in science and math than students in all of the countries in the study – the United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, Canada, and South Korea. [12] In math, South Korean students, the highest performers, are achieving levels four times those of American students – an alarming statistic indeed, but far from an isolated one. By most measures American students are doing rather badly, and their schools must bear some responsibility for this.