'Gravest Threat' to Private Schools Is Better Public Ones, Finn Warns
New York--Using unpublished national test data to bolster his case, Assistant Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn Jr. warned independent-school leaders here that the "gravest threat" they face is a reformed public-school system.
Citing his analysis of results from two 1986 assessments of student achievement, Mr. Finn said the gap between private- and public-school performance is very slight and could be closed by reform efforts.
"You need to improve faster than the public schools if you expect to continue to have people paying an average of $6,200 a year for day schools and almost $12,000 a year for boarding schools in order to get a presumably better educational product," he5p6said at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Schools.
Findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed private-school students scoring at most about four points higher on the reading assessment and six points higher on history and literature tests, according to the assistant secretary.
"There's a differential," he said, "but it's a very small differential, in an area where the public-school performance is scandalously low."
Mr. Finn's use of the naep data drew immediate criticism from private-school leaders, who have long urged that the federally funded assessment include a larger sampling of students from private schools.
Mr. Finn, himself a graduate of the Phillips Exeter Academy, acknowledged theinued on Page 7
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disproportionately low representation of private-school students in his sample and said both assessments could provide only tentative comparisons.
Still, he insisted, the data indicate that "the advantage private schools have is not very great."
Small Difference Found
Results from the 1986 naep reading test, which measured the skills of 36,000 students in grades 3, 7, and 11, were released in February in the report Who Reads Best? Delayed for more than five months because of an apparent "anomaly" in its findings, the report did not include data on the 2,962 private-school students taking the test.
According to Mr. Finn, however, private-school 3rd graders averaged a score of 39.3 out of a possible 100 on tests of reading comprehension, while their public-school counterparts averaged 37.9.
In the 7th grade, private-school students scored 52.2, and public8school students scored 48.4. For the 11th grade, the scores were 60.1 and 55.6, respectively.
The private-school sample included Roman Catholic and other religious schools, Mr. Finn said. The naep mathematics assessment, scheduled to be released next month, will show similar results, he added.
A 'D-Minus' Score
The Education Department's chief research official also presented what he said were newly analyzed data from the 1986 naep assessment of knowledge in history and literature. It included 180 independent-school students, out of a total of 7,812 11th graders tested.
The assessment was the subject of the book What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, which Mr. Finn wrote with Diane Ravitch, adjunct professor of history and education at Columbia University's Teachers College.
Results of the history test were, in Mr. Finn's words, "accurate but reprehensible." Overall, public-school students answered 54 percent of the questions correctly, with college-bound public-school students answering 60 percent correctly.
For nonpublic schools, the results were only slightly better, he said, with an overall average of 60 percent and an average for independent-school students of 63 percent.
On the literature assessment, public-school students answered an average of 51 percent of the questions correctly, with college-bound public-school students averaging 57 percent. The average score for students in nonpublic schools was 58 percent, and for those in independent schools 60 percent.
"I consider a score in the low 60's on this a D minus," Mr. Finn said. He said he was writing an article on the private-school data for publication in Phi Delta Kappan magazine.
No School Effect?
Mr. Finn argued here that such small differences in performance might be solely attributable to influences in the students' backgrounds.
For example, he said, more than twice as many independent-school students taking the tests reported that their parents had graduated from college.
"Parent education correlates very closely to school performance," Mr. Finn said.
"With differences that large in parent education, it is conceivable that there's no school effect showing up here at all."
Independent-school students are also more likely than public-school students to have participated in preschool programs, to watch less television, take more "core" academic courses, and attend school more regu4larly, the naep sample indicated.
Noting that much of the current reform movement represents an effort by public schools to more closely approximate private schools, Mr. Finn warned that the differential in student achievement must be enlarged for private schools to remain competitive.
'Doing Something Right'
"The qualities of effective schools are remarkably like the qualities independent schools have always had," he said.
Public-sector activities aimed at curriculum improvement, school restructuring, professionalization of teaching, alternative certification, and choice are avenues toward those qualities, he suggested.
"It suggests that you indeed have been doing something right," he said. "But I think it probably also poses for the long run the gravest danger that independent schools face at the hands of government."
The danger, Mr. Finn said, is "the probability that a vast, publicly financed enterprise is going to come to resemble your enterprise in all respects save one: It will be free."
If independent schools had a commanding lead in student achievement, then this would be a "distant threat," Mr. Finn concluded.
"But in general your lead is only modest and it is able to be overtaken unless you sprint forward."