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Published in Print: April 1, 1999, as Books

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THE WAY WE WERE? The Myths and Realities of America's Student Achievement, by Richard Rothstein. (A Century Foundation Report, $11.95.)THE BLACK-WHITE TEST SCORE GAP, edited by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips. (Brookings, $49.95; paper, $18.95. )

In the early 1990s, a cabal of education scholars and revisionists-most notably Gerald Bracey and David Berliner-began proclaiming that the so-called "education crisis" was a fraud, engineered by right-wingers working in collusion with a sensationalist media.

Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, hangs with this revisionist crowd, revealing here what he believes is some test-score chicanery that the enemies of public education have used to promote vouchers and privatization. In reality, Rothstein tells us, our schools aren't all that bad; in fact, he argues, they may be better than they've ever been.

Rothstein is at his best in The Way We Were when he illuminates the murky and seemingly condemnatory test-score data. Like a skillful trial lawyer, he guides us through exhibit after exhibit, showing that almost all the damning statistics can be explained by changes in the numbers and demographics of the test-takers. He points out, for example, that while 4th graders' test scores are roughly the same now as they were 40 years ago, their age is not. Fourth graders these days tend to be about 9 years old, but four decades ago, before parents and educators began to emphasize academic and social acceleration, they were often 11 years old and in some cases 12. Given this shift, Rothstein argues, 4th grade test scores have actually improved.

Rothstein disassembles high school testing data in similar fashion. Though SAT scores are roughly the same as they were in the 1960s-slightly higher in math and slightly lower in verbal-many more students take the tests now. Furthermore, these test-takers are more socially and racially diverse than in the past and include many students who 40 years ago would never have dreamed of going to college.

Finally, Rothstein turns his attention to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which policymakers, he contends, have used like a cudgel to beat up public education. Rothstein seems on especially solid ground here in asserting that the interpretation of NAEP scores is calibrated almost conspiratorially low. The 1992 test results, for example, showed that only 2 percent of U.S. 12th grade test-takers had achieved at an "advanced" level in math. But during the very same year, 3.8 percent of all high school graduates passed the rigorous Advanced Placement exam in calculus.

Overall, Rothstein's picture of steadily improving student achievement is convincing, though he acknowledges that the profusion of different kinds of tests, endlessly revamped and revised over time, makes precise judgments difficult. There is also the deeper question-largely ignored by Rothstein-of whether test-score gains are truly indicative of meaningful improvements in student knowledge and skills. In an assessment-obsessed academic culture, teachers get better at teaching to tests and students at taking them. But filling in bubbles with more accuracy-and most tests still require just that-does not necessarily suggest an intellectual blossoming.

Rothstein talks little in his book about minority achievement, but he does point to test-score gains by African American students-on the NAEP math exams, for example-since the early 1970s. The research-soaked essays collected by Jencks and Phillips in The Black-White Test Score Gap , on the other hand, are hardly upbeat. They dwell instead on the great test-score chasm between white and black students. For all of the apparent gains black students have made, the editors note in their introduction, they still score below 75 percent of white students on most standardized tests.

Over the course of more than 500 data-intensive pages, 25 noted scholars and researchers ponder the persistence of this gap. Contributors venture various hypotheses, only to have them refuted and, in some cases, counter-refuted. An example: While several sociologists assert that the performance of black students declines in high school because their friends deride academic achievement as "acting white," two other researchers reject that argument, saying they've found that high-achieving African American students are generally well-regarded by their peers.

From these conflicting and sometimes confusing analyses, the more pointed work of Harvard University's Ronald Ferguson emerges as a relief. Noting that early intervention programs like Head Start have few long-lasting beneficial effects for African American children, Ferguson turns his attention to the influence of teachers on black student achievement. A disproportionate number of teachers working in predominantly black districts have, he reports, low test scores and weak basic skills. Because there is a strong correlation between teachers' test scores and the achievement of their students, Ferguson argues, it's essential to get more high-quality teachers into the classrooms of African American students.

The Black-White Test Score Gap , then, serves as a bracing antidote to Rothstein's optimism. As the editors bleakly note, "The cognitive disparities between black and white preschool children are currently so large that it is hard to imagine how schools alone could eliminate them." Anyone reading these two books in sequence is likely to feel that we've come far but not nearly far enough.

--David Ruenzel

Vol. 10, Issue 7, Pages 50-51

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