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Pupil Performance 'Far Below' Goals, NAEP Finds

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Washington--Schools must "greatly hasten" efforts to improve student achievement if the United States is to attain the education goals set by President Bush and the nation's governors, a report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress concludes.

In a joint statement issued in February, Mr. Bush and the governors pledged that, by the year 2000, all students will demonstrate "competency in challenging subject matter" and that schools will "ensure that all students learn to use their minds well."

But the report released last week, which analyzes the results of assessments administered in five subject areas in 1986 and 1988, notes that student achievement levels are "far below those that might indicate competence," and that performance has improved little in the past 20 years.

In addition, it states, the gaps in performance between white and minority students remain "unacceptably large" and gender differences have not changed in the past two decades.

And, despite overwhelming evidence suggesting that more and better classwork enhances student achievement, the report says, many students are not enrolled in challenging courses, and schools tend to employ the same methods they have used for decades.

Speakers at a press conference here to release the report said it could serve as a "cold shower" to awaken Americans about the dismal state of student achievement.

At the same time, said Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos, the report points to ways to boost student achievement and meet the national goals.

"We can raise the performance level of students by demanding more of them in the classroom and at home," he said. "Students are capable of advanced learning--if we expect it."

But Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, said the NAEP report was unlikely to spur improvements. What is needed, he said, is a "massive research-and-development effort" to pull together a synthesis of research on teaching in the subject areas and to design experiments to put such findings into practice.

"This report makes it abundantly clear," Mr. Cawelti said, "that the recent rhetoric from the bully pulpit has had zero effect on student achievement."

A Congressionally mandated project, NAEP has since 1969 tested a national sample of students in a variety of subjects. It is currently operated by the Educational Testing Service under contract to the Education Department.

Results from the 1988 assessments in reading, writing, U.S. history, civics, and geography, were issued earlier this year.

The new report, "America's Challenge: Accelerating Academic Achievement," summarizes findings from those assessments, as well as those from the 1986 tests in math and science.

The study found "remarkably similar" patterns in the results, according to Emerson J. Elliott, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

For example, it found, average proficiency levels in each subject area have remained "essentially constant" over the past two decades. Although there have been some gains, particularly by minorities, in reading achievement, performance in science has declined, while that in math and writing stayed virtually the same.

In addition, it states, while the vast majority of students demonstrated basic knowledge and skills, there have been declines in the proportions of students who could reason and solve problems. To fulfill the national objective of "increasing substantially" the number of students with such abilities, the report notes, schools must first "stem the downward trend in these percentages."

The report also notes that the gaps between whites' and minorities' performance have narrowed substantially over the past 20 years. Nevertheless, it states, white 13-year-olds outperformed black 17-year-olds in science, and performed nearly as well in math.

Gender differences have been "more resistant to change," the report states. Consistently over the past 20 years, it says, female students outperformed males in writing and reading, and males did better than females in science and math.

Findings from the NAEP studies also indicate that the educational practices in American schools contradict "researchers' suggestions about what strategies work best to help students learn," the report states.

For example, it notes, although students who have taken advanced coursework tend to perform better on the assessments than those who did not, large numbers of students--including those who consider themselves college-bound--were not enrolled in upper-level math and science courses.

But even when students are enrolled in such classes, the study found, much coursework is not conducive to student learning. For example, despite research on the effectiveness of "hands on" learning in science and math, more than 90 percent of students reported classrooms dominated by lectures and seat work.

Students do not read and write much for school or for homework, the study found. About half the students tested reported reading 10 pages a day or fewer and the number who said they read for pleasure declined as students got older.

Copies of "America's Challenge: Accelerating Academic Achievement," are available for $12 each from NAEP, P.O. Box 6710, Princeton, N.J. 08541-6710.

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