The Foundational Myth Of Education Reform

One of the reasons I started writing about the education reform shenanigans many moons ago is that, in days of yore, education reformers always started their arguments with ‘test scores (usually the NAEP) are declining so we have to do something.’ Way back in the day, there were very few people (Kevin Drum, Chad Orzel, and Bob Somerby were the only ones I knew of) who actually looked at the damn test scores and realized that, within demographic groups, test scores were rising, especially among disadvantaged groups. The reason aggregate test scores declined was because more students from lower performing groups were being tested.

Reality notwithstanding, the decline of the U.S. education system, as measured by test scores, was the foundational myth for education reform (if not what truly motivated some of the education reformers). So this article about ‘A Nation at Risk’, the 1983 report that started all the hype about failure, is quite illuminating (boldface mine):

The report’s narrative of failing schools — students being out-competed internationally and declining educational standards — persists, and has become an entrenched part of the debate over education in the U.S…

But what I learned in talking to two of the original authors of “A Nation At Risk” was that they never set out to undertake an objective inquiry into the state of the nation’s schools.

They started out already alarmed by what they believed was a decline in education, and looked for facts to fit that narrative.

And while their report is still widely cited, a second official federal government analysis of standardized test scores, produced just seven years later, showed the opposite of what was claimed in “A Nation At Risk.” That analysis found, instead, “steady or slightly improving trends” in student achievement.

The looming disaster depicted in “A Nation At Risk,” it turns out, was a matter of interpretation.

I interviewed Yvonne Larsen, the vice chair of the commission that wrote the report, for my 2015 book The Test. Here’s how she described what happened:

“I was called by [President Reagan’s] office. They told us that we were going to have a commission … to address the challenge that we faced in trying to upgrade America’s education to the rigorous education that we had in the past … We felt the rigor in our schools had diminished. We were concerned. There was a strong feeling that if we continued how we were going, we wouldn’t continue to improve.”

Gerald Holton, now professor emeritus of physics and the history of science at Harvard University, was another member of the commission. He drafted some of the most alarmist language in the document, including the now-famous line: “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.”

Like Larsen, he said that he and his co-authors set out to confirm their existing concerns about the state of America’s schools…

“A Nation at Risk” cited statistics such as: “The average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests is now lower than 26 years ago when Sputnik was launched,” and “[The SAT demonstrates] a virtually unbroken decline from 1963 to 1980. Average verbal scores fell over 50 points and average mathematics scores dropped nearly 40 points.”

Those numbers weren’t made up. But they weren’t the only ones out there.

The report de-emphasized the fact that more students than ever were graduating from high school and attending college, and that top U.S. students led the world in academic achievement.

Meanwhile, while trying to make economic forecasts, the Energy Department conducted its own study. You’ll never guess what happened next!

The Department of Energy — yes, Energy — commissioned a follow-up analysis of test score trends in 1990. It was known as the Sandia Report, after the federally funded Sandia National Laboratories which produced it.

Its authors were engineers trying to generate economic forecasts, not education authorities with an ax to grind. And they didn’t diagnose the same disaster that “A Nation At Risk” did.

“To our surprise, on nearly every measure, we found steady or slightly improving trends,” one of the authors, Robert Huelskamp, later wrote…

But, when you broke out test takers by subgroup, as the Sandia Report did, looking at men, women, whites, Hispanics, African–Americans and low-income students separately, you found that most of these groups of students were improving slightly on test-taking over that time.

“The idea that American schools were worse just wasn’t true,” says James Guthrie, an education professor at Lynn University in Florida. Guthrie published a scholarly article in 2004 titled “A Nation At Risk Revisited: Did ‘Wrong’ Reasoning Result in ‘Right’ Results? At What Cost?”

“I looked at it every which way,” he says now. The authors in 1983 “were hell-bent on proving that schools were bad. They cooked the books to get what they wanted.”

…“A Nation At Risk” got the national spotlight.

The Sandia Report got something very different. Its publication was delayed for many months. It’s been cited as a famous case of censorship.

This isn’t to say that the poverty and racial gaps, which are closing, aren’t still too wide. And we should also mention the state-to-state gaps, which can exceed within state racial gaps. But, overall, the system is not failing: students are performing much better than earlier generations did.

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