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Bell Perceives 'Academic Turnaround' In 50-State Chart of Reform Indicators

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Washington--The Education Department's second annual state-by-state analysis of resources allocated to education and the outcomes they produce indicates the beginning of an "academic turnaround" in the nation, former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell said in his final press conference here late last month.

But in releasing the latest version of what has come to be known as his "wall chart," Mr. Bell, sounding more like an economist than an educator, warned that "it is too early to claim an academic recovery.'' (See Databank on page 12.)

Good News, Bad News

"The good news ... is that academic performance has generally improved since 1982," he said. Nationally, average scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the American College Testing Program Assessment have gone up over the two-year period, but there has been a wide diversity among the states, Mr. Bell pointed out.

Sixteen states in which the greater number of students take the act assessment experienced gains--but five experienced losses and seven experienced no change, he said. Likewise, 16 states in which the sat predominates experienced improvements, but five experienced losses and one experienced no change. (Washington State was not included in the tabulation because of the small number of students taking either test there.)

"The fact that 32 states improved--and only 10 declined--provides tangible evidence of the academic turnaround that has resulted from the higher standards and expectations we have set for ourselves over the past few years," said Mr. Bell. "But while we are encouraged that national test scores are inching up after 20 years of decline, there is as yet no cause for celebration. We still have a long way to go to recover our losses since the early 1960's."

Graduation Rates

Mr. Bell also noted that the percentage of students graduating from high school in the states had improved from 1982 to 1983, the latest years for which statistics are available. The national rate for 1983 was 73.9 percent, up about 1 percent from 1982. Graduation rates rose in 42 states and the District of Columbia but dropped in eight others.

At this rate, Mr. Bell acknowledged, the nation will not be able to meet President Reagan's election campaign challenge to educators to raise state graduation rates to 90 percent or better by 1990. At present, only Minnesota and Wisconsin have achieved that goal.

Nor will states be able to meet the President's challenge to regain at least half the losses of the last 20 years on the college-entrance ex3aminations, he said. Only in the District of Columbia have average scores on the sat risen again to their level in 1972, the halfway year for test scores between 1963 and 1984

Limitations Acknowledged

As he did last year, Mr. Bell acknowledged the limitations inherent in using average scores on the examinations and graduation rates as the only measures of states' educational outcomes. He urged readers of the chart "to look at each state in the full context of its population characteristics" when appraising its performance in meeting education needs.

When asked why the department decided to publish the data despite their limitations, Mr. Bell responded that "it is critical to keep the public interested in our progress in reforming education."

"To the extent that we can keep education before the people, we'll enhance our chances for success," he said. "We heighten public interest when we have a scoreboard."

Comparisons Accepted

The department's release of the wall chart last year ignited a vigorous debate among educators about the propriety and usefulness of comparing the states with each other with respect to educational progress. In general, however, educators now accept the inevitability of such comparisons and are taking steps to ensure that they are valid and meaningful.

Last November, for example, the Council of Chief State School Officers voted to reverse a longstanding policy and called for regular comparisons of the states' educational progress and the development of national achievement tests. The group also voted to establish a center to coordinate nationwide assessment activities. (See Education Week, Nov. 21, 1984.)

A few weeks prior to the ccsso vote, the policy committee of the National Assessment of Educational3Progress voted to allow states and localities on a voluntary basis to compare the educational progress of their students with those in other states and localities. Currently, the naep, a Congressionally mandated program that regularly assesses the educational progress of 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds, provides only a regional breakdown of test scores in comparison to national averages.

The Education Department is also attempting to sustain the current wave of education reform by providing the public with a means of assessing progress in the nation's schools. Several divisions of the department are in the final stages of preparing an "educational indicators" publication intended to focus on educational progress on the local, state, national, and international levels. (See Education Week, Oct. 17, 1984.)

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