Reforms Not Widely Incorporated, Report Concludes

By Robert Rothman — February 05, 1992 4 min read

WASHINGTON--Schools have begun to incorporate some instructional strategies recommended by reformers, a study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress has found.

However, the report released here last week concludes, few such changes have been implemented widely. And other trends--including the amount of homework students do and the amount of television they watch have been stable or moving in “the wrong direction,” NAEP officials said.

Perhaps as a result, the study found, overall achievement in science, mathematics, and reading has improved little since the 1970’s, and most students’ writing ability is at about the same level it was in the mid-1980’s.

“We were doing a lousy job 20 years ago, and we’re not doing a better job now,” Patricia Albjerg Graham, the president of the Spencer Foundation, said at a press conference here.

The difference, Ms. Graham added, is that “20 years ago, it didn’t matter as much.”

The report analyzes trends in student performance in science between 1969 and 1990, in reading from 1971 to 1990, in math between 1973 and 1990, and in writing from 1984 to 1990.

It found that, in 1990, more high school students said they had taken advanced math and science classes, and that younger students participated more than their older counterparts did in hands-on science activities.

It also found that older students were reading more in language-arts classrooms, and that students tended to do more writing and write longer papers than in the past.

But it also found that the number of 9-year-olds who reported having access to a variety of reading materials at home dropped sharply over the past two decades. And, at the same time, the proportion of students who watched from three to five hours of television a night increased.

To help bring up levels of student achievement, Ms. Graham suggested, the nation must launch a dramatic campaign to foster high academic performance for all students.

“We have been quite good among some segments of the population in reducing smoking,” she said. “if we can get people to give up nicotine, we might get them to take up books.”

‘Generally Positive’ Trends

A Congressionally mandated project, NAEP has since 1969 tested a nationally representative sample of students on a range of academic subjects. It is currently operated by the Educational Testing Service under contract to the Education Department.

The department last September released data from the trend report, which showed that, by 1990, students had generally regained the ground they had lost in the 1970’s and were performing in most subjects at about the same level as two decades before. (See Education Week, Oct. 2, 1991.)

The new report, “Trends in Academic Progress,” includes the full student-performance data, as well as additional information on curriculum, instruction, and attitudes.

It found that the stricter high school graduation requirements states imposed in the mid-1980’s appear to have led to an increase in advanced course-taking in math and science.

In 1990, 85 percent of 17-year-olds had taken biology, and 42 percent had taken chemistry, the report states. In 1982, by contrast, 76 percent had taken biology and 31 percent had taken chemistry. But the proportion who had taken physics remained stable at about 10 percent, it found.

Similarly, in math, the number of students who stopped at pre-algebra or general math declined from 20 percent to 15 percent between 1978 and 1990, and the proportion who had taken algebra rose from 37 percent to 44 percent over that period, the study found.

The report also notes that the use of hands-on materials in science, which many experts consider essential to learning, has been increasing. Nearly two-thirds of 9-year-olds in 1990 said they had used a microscope, compared with half in 1977, the study found.

The number of students who used computers in math classes also rose, according to the report.

“There were ‘generally positive’ trends in math,” said Mark D. Musick, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board. “They were nothing to run a flag up a flagpole about, or to set fireworks off about, but neither is ‘generally positive’ something to yawn about.”

‘De-Emphasis’ on Literacy

In reading and writing, however, the NAEP study showed more ominous trends, participants at the press conference noted.

Although students in 1990 reported reading generally the same types of materials in school that they had earlier, the proportion of students who had access to newspapers, magazines, books, and encyclopedias at home has declined sharply. Slightly more than half of the 17 -year-olds-55 percent--reported having access to all four types of materials in 1990, compared with two-thirds in 1971, the report shows. In addition, although 8th and 11th graders in 1990 said teachers were more likely than those in 1984 to comment on the ideas in their writing, fewer than half of the students in either year reported making major revisions to their papers.

“The trends suggest literacy for the nation’s schoolchildren may be decreasing,” said Ina V.S. Mullis, NAEP’S deputy director. “The de-emphasis on reading and writing is happening at a time when children seem to find time to watch three hours of television a night.”

Information on ordering “Trends in Academic Progress” can be obtained by writing to the Education Information Branch, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Education Department, 555 New Jersey Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20208-5641; or by calling (800) 424-1616.

A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 1992 edition of Education Week as Reforms Not Widely Incorporated, Report Concludes