Far-Sighted or Foolish? The 20th anniversary of "A Nation at Risk"

By Gerald W. Bracey

Twenty years ago, after a bitter dispute among White House insiders, Ronald Reagan officially accepted A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, a report delivered to Reagan by secretary of education Terrel Bell through his National Commission on Excellence in Education.

The report played big in the media-28 articles in the Washington Post alone-but it had more use as a political tract. The White House moderates, especially James Baker and Michael Deaver, thought the report contained many issues on which Reagan could campaign. Indeed, the commissioners soon came to feel they had been used to further political ends, notably Reagan's reelection in 1984. For his part, Bell in later years noted that the report stole the education issue from the Democrats and that Reagan's speeches about the importance of education served as cover for his cuts in welfare, aid to dependent children, Medicaid and other social programs.

Gerald W. Bracey
Gerald W. Bracey

Any students who were in first grade when A Nation at Risk appeared and who went directly from high school graduation into the work force have now been there almost nine years. Those who went on to bachelor's degrees have been on the job for nearly five years. Despite the dire predictions of national economic collapse without immediate education reform, our national productivity has soared since those predictions were made. What, then, are we to make of A Nation at Risk 20 years on?

The report's stentorian Cold War rhetoric still commands attention: "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war" (pg. 5).

By contrast, the report's recommendations were banal. They called for nothing new, only for more of the same: more science, more mathematics, more computer science, more foreign language, more homework, more rigorous courses, more time-on-task, more hours in the school day, more days in the school year, more training for teachers, more money for teachers. And even those mundane recommendations were based on a veritable treasury of slanted, spun, and distorted statistics.

Stop worrying so much about the Red Menace, the booklet said. The threat was not that our enemies would bomb us off the planet, but that our friends-especially Germany, Japan, and South Korea-would outsmart us and wrest control of the world economy.

The commission members tightly yoked the nation's global competitiveness to how well our 13-year- olds bubbled in test answer sheets. The theory was, to be kind, without merit. Nevertheless, it became very popular in the late 1980s, when the nation slid into the recession that would cost George H. W. Bush a second term. One then heard many variations of "lousy schools are producing a lousy work force and that's killing us in the global marketplace." The economy, however, was not listening to the litany and came roaring back.

During the years after the publication of A Nation at Risk, critics of the schools not only hyped the alleged bad news but also deliberately suppressed good news-or ignored it when they couldn't actually suppress it. The most egregious example was the suppression of the Sandia Report. Assembled in 1990 by engineers at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, the report presented 78 pages of graphs and tables and 78 pages of text to explain them. It concluded that, while there were many problems in public education, there was no systemwide crisis.

Secretary of Energy James Watkins, who had asked for the report, called it "dead wrong" in the Albuquerque Journal. Briefed by the Sandia engineers who compiled it, Deputy Secretary of Education and former Xerox CEO David Kearns told them, "You bury this or I'll bury you." The engineers were forbidden to leave New Mexico to discuss the report. Officially, according to Diane Ravitch, then assistant secretary of education, the report was undergoing "peer review" by other agencies (an unprecedented occurrence) and was not ready for publication.

Lee Bray, the vice president of Sandia, supervised the engineers who produced the report. I asked Bray, now retired, about the fate of the report. He affirmed that it was definitely and deliberately suppressed.

There were other instances of accentuating the negative in the wake of A Nation at Risk. In February 1992, a small international comparison in mathematics and science appeared. America's ranks were largely, but not entirely, low, although actual scores were near the international averages. Critics would hammer the schools with this international study for years.

Five months after the math/science study, another international comparison appeared, this one in reading. No one knew. American 9-year-olds were second in the world in reading among the 27 nations tested. American 14-year-olds were eighth out of 31 countries, but only Finland had a significantly higher score.

While A Nation at Risk offered a litany of spun statistics about the risks the nation faced, its authors and fellow believers presented no actual data to support the contention that high test scores implied competitiveness?only the most circumstantial of evidence. The arguments heard around the country typically went like this: "Asian nations have high test scores. Asian nations, especially Japan, have experienced economic miracles. Therefore, the high test scores produced the economic good times." Thus the National Commission on Excellence in Education-and many school critics as well-made a mistake that no educated person should: they confused correlation with causation.

The "data" on education and competitiveness consisted largely of testimonials from Americans who had visited Japanese schools. I once asked Paul George of the University of Florida about the difficulty of gaining entrance to any less-than-stellar Japanese schools. George has spent years in Japanese schools of various kinds. His reply was succinct: "Look, there are 27 high schools in Osaka, ranked 1 to 27. You can easily get into the top few. You would have a much harder time getting into number 12 or number 13. Not even Japanese researchers can get into number 27."

The proponents of the test-score theory of economic health grew quiet after the Japanese discovered that the emperor's palace and grounds were actually not worth more than the entire state of California. Japan has foundered economically now for 12 years. The government admits that bad loans from banks to corporations amount to more than 10% of its Gross Domestic Product. Some estimate the size of the bad loans as high as 75% of GDP.

The case of Japan presents a counterexample to the idea that high test scores ensure a thriving economy. But there is a more general method available to test the hypothesis put forth in A Nation at Risk. I located 35 nations that were ranked in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) eighth-grade tests and were also ranked for global competitiveness by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Geneva think tank. Among these 35, the US was number one in competitiveness in 2001. Among all 75 countries that the WEF ranked in its 2001-2002 report, the US was number two, trailing Finland. The rank order correlation coefficient between test scores and competitiveness was +.19, virtually zero. If five countries that scored low on both variables were removed from the list, the coefficient actually became negative.

A Nation at Risk fabricated its case for the connection between education and competitiveness out of whole cloth, but to make its case for the dire state of American education, it did provide a lot of statistics. Consider these:

1. "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" (pg. 9). Maybe, maybe not. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was not originally designed to produce trends, and the scores for 1969 and 1973 are backward extrapolations from the 1977 assessment. In any case, the declines were smaller for 9- and 13-year-olds and had already been wiped out by gains on the 1982 assessment. Scores for reading and math for all three ages assessed by NAEP were stable or inching upward. The commissioners thus had nine trendlines (three ages times three subjects), only one of which could be used to support crisis rhetoric. That was the only one they reported.

2. "The College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Tests demonstrate a virtually unbroken decline from 1963 to 1980" (pg. 8-9). This was true. But the College Board's own investigative panel described a complex trend to which many variables contributed. It ascribed most of the decline to changes in who was taking the test?more minorities, more women, more students with mediocre high school records, more students from low-income families. All of those demographic changes are associated with lower scores on any test. It would have been very suspicious if the scores had not declined.

3. "Average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests is now lower than 26 years ago when Sputnik was launched" (pg. 8). But in order to examine trends in test scores over time, one needs a test that is referenced to a fixed standard where each new form is equated to the earlier form. At the time, most companies that produced standardized tests did not equate them from form to form over time. Instead, they used a "floating norm." Whenever they renormed their tests, whatever raw score corresponded to the 50th percentile became the new norm. Only the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS, grades 3-8) and the Iowa Tests of Educational Development (ITED, grades 9-12) were referenced to a fixed standard and equated from form to form, beginning in 1955.

It is instructive to examine what the nation was experiencing during the 10 years of falling test scores from 1965 to 1975. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, and 1965 opened with the Watts riots in Los Angeles. The decade also brought us the Black Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Army, Students for a Democratic Society, the Free Speech Movement, the Summer of Love, Woodstock, Altamont, Ken Kesey and his LSD-laced band of Merry Pranksters, the Kent State atrocities, and the 1968 Chicago Police Riot. Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X were all assassinated. The nation became obsessed with and depressed by first the war in Vietnam and then Watergate. "Recreational drugs"?pot, acid, speed, Quaaludes, amyl nitrate?had become popular. If you remember the Sixties, the saying goes, you weren't there.

Under these conditions of social upheaval, centered in the schools and universities, it would have been a miracle if test scores had not fallen.

Alas, we must recognize that good news about public schools serves no one's reform agenda—even if it does make teachers, students, parents, and administrators feel a little better. Conservatives want vouchers and tuition tax credits; liberals want more resources for schools; free marketers want to privatize the schools and make money; fundamentalists want to teach religion and not worry about the First Amendment; Catholic schools want to stanch their student hemorrhage; and home schooling advocates want just that. All groups believe that they will improve their chances of getting what they want if they pummel the publics.

It has been 20 years since A Nation at Risk appeared. It was false then and is false now. Today, the laments are old and tired. "Test Scores Lag as School Spending Soars" trumpeted the headline of a 2002 press release from the American Legislative Exchange Council. Ho hum. The various special interest groups in education need another treatise to rally round. And now they have one. It's called No Child Left Behind. It's a weapon of mass destruction, and the target is the public school system. Today, our public schools are truly at risk.

Gerald W. Bracey is an associate for the High/Scope Foundation in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and an associate professor at George Mason University. His most recent book is What You Need to Know About the War Against America's Public Schools (Allyn and Bacon/Longman, 2003). The above was adapted from an article in the April 2003 issue of Phi Delta Kappan. Reprinted with permission.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette

July 2003 (Volume 12, Number 7)

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Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis
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