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