Revisionists Take Aim at Gloomy View of Schools Much More Progress Needed, Critics Assert

By Robert Rothman — November 13, 1991 14 min read

Charging that school reformers’ rhetoric has overstated the magnitude of the problems in American education, a number of analysts have launched a counterattack.

Citing a range of data--including graduation rates, college aspirations, and test scores--the revisionists contend that those who have asserted that schools are in desperate shape are wrong. In fact, they maintain, student performance is clearly on the upswing. “

“The evidence overwhelmingly shows,” states Gerald W. Bracey, the former director of research for the Cherry Creek, Colo. school district, in the October 1991 edition of the Phi Delta Kappan, “that American schools have never achieved more than they currently achieve. And some indicators show them performing better than ever.”

Such pronouncements are stirring up strong responses, however, from many who argue that the revisionists’ assessments miss the point and that policymakers and educators must continue to push hard to improve schools and student performance.

In addition to Mr. Bracey’s article, the new optimistic view of student performance has surfaced in a number of places. They include:

  • An essay in Education Week by the demographer Harold Hodgkinson, who asserts that rising scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test in many states indicate that not all schools are in trouble.
  • An unpublished report by researchers from the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, which concludes that claims of a systemwide failure in education are “simply not true.” The report has been sharply criticized as flawed.
  • A paper by Iris C. Rotberg, a program director with the National Science Foundation, which states that international comparisons showing U.S. students far behind their peers in other countries are based on flawed data. She concludes that “the bottom line is not so grim as the current rhetoric would have us believe.”

The researchers acknowledge that many schools, particularly those in inner cities, have numerous problems. But, Mr. Bracey said in an interview, in contrast to reformers’ gloomy views, the glass is half full, not empty.

“People in schools have been dumped on for so long, a half-full glass seems like champagne and caviar,” said Mr. Bracey, who resigned last week as a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association. (See related box, page 14.)

‘We Need To Do Better’

A review of the data and interviews with numerous experts confirm that student performance has improved, although the picture is not as rosy as the one Mr. Bracey and the others paint.

Moreover, many educators state, despite the increases, student achievement remains far too low. And, they contend, emphasizing the good news may lead to a sense of self-satisfaction that makes it difficult for schools to reach higher levels of performance.

“The hardest thing to persuade people of is that we need to do better,” said Diane S. Ravitch, the assistant U.S. secretary of education for educational research and improvement. “But the thrust of [the revisionists’] argument is, ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’”

“For myself, the glass ought to be more than half full,” she added. “We’re trying to fill up the glass.”

But Theodore R. Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University and the director of the Coalition of Essential Schools, said increasing test scores is not the goal of education. He said he hoped the revisionist arguments would put the debate over test performance to rest so that educators can focus on schools’ true problems.

“The problem is, over one-fifth of American schoolchildren live in poverty,” he said. “and, even in elite schools, kids are not in the habit of thinking about things; they are not resourceful in the use of their minds.”

“Those problems, if anything, could be considered worse problems [than lagging test scores],” Mr. Sizer added. “The myopic concern over test scores is blinding us as to the wider sweep of the problem.”

National Standards

The debate over the level of student performance comes at a critical juncture in the school-reform movement, educators note.

For the first time, educators and policymakers are considering establishing national standards for what students should know and be able to do in key subjects, and most involved in the process assume that standards should be higher than they are now.

“We’re still a long ways away from where we ought to be as a nation,’' said Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, co-chairman of the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, a Congressionally mandated panel examining the desirability and feasibility of national standards and assessments.

In part, the drive for higher standards reflects the view that young people need a higher level of skills and knowledge to be prepared for an increasingly demanding workplace. But a growing number of economists and educators are questioning whether jobs in the future will require better-prepared workers. (See related story, page 1 .)

Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University, said he would agree that student performance must reach a much higher level “if some top policymaker could tell me that test scores are the critical variable in increasing the economic productivity of the nation.”

“That case has not been made to my satisfaction,” Mr. Cuban said.

Some of the revisionists also claim that some of the critics pointing out the low levels of school performance are doing so for political reasons.

By claiming that the reforms thus far have failed to pay off, said Bill Honig, the state superintendent of public instruction in California, policymakers can make a case for vouchers that would allow parents to send children to private schools.

But Ms. Ravitch denied that there was a political motive behind the demands for improvement.

“I have no problem” giving credit for the gains that have been made so far, she said. “Those who say the glass is empty are wrong.”

Filling the Pipeline

In making their case that schools have improved, many of the revisionists point to the rising number of students--particularly members of minority groups--who are graduating from high school and taking college-admissions tests.

“For the past 25 years,” the Sandia report states, “we have educated children who in previous generations would have been excluded from education.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the high school completion rate for persons ages 19 and 20 rose slightly between 1982 and 1990 to 83 percent, an all-time high.

During the past decade, moreover, the center reports, the proportion of students dropping out of school each year declined, from 6.2 percent to 4.1 percent.

In addition, in 1990-91, a record high of 42 percent of the high-school senior class took the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and the number of black s.A.T. takers reached an all-time high of 100,209.

“We got them to take the test, and they’re eligible for college,” Mr. Honig said. “That’s what we asked them to do.”

The students who enter college and go on to graduate school, moreover, are unparalleled in the world, argued Mr. Hodgkinson, the director of the Center for Demographic Policy at the Institute for Educational Leadership. American scholars far outpace their foreign peers in the number of scholarly articles they write, he noted.

“We keep turning out graduate students, the vast majority of whom come from American schools,” Mr. Hodgkinson said. “The first half of the pipeline can’t be entirely bad.”

But Donald M. Stewart, the president of the College Board, which sponsors the S.A.T., said the trends in scores on that test suggest an ominous trend for the future.

The fact that average scores have been declining, he said, reflects the fact that an increasing number of students who are ill-prepared for college are taking the test.

And, said Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States, the rising high school graduation rate comes at a time when there are fewer and fewer job opportunities for high-school dropouts. As a result, he said, the dropout rate is a more serious problem now than it was in the past, when it was higher.

“The military and industry don’t take dropouts anymore,” he said. “There’s nothing for them to do. That’s a dangerous thing for the country.”

In addition to citing rising enrollments, advocates of the optimistic view say students are learing more while they are in school. As evidence, they point to trends in test scores.

Students’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress has increased over the past decade, and, in most subjects, it has reached the levels students attained in the early 1970’s, according to the most recent NAEP data. (See Education Week, Oct. 2, 1991 .)

Commercial test publishers report similar trends on their achievement tests.

Between 1981 and 1990, said Douglas McRae, the vice president for publishing of C.T.B. Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, which publishes the California Achievement Test and the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, mathematics achievement increased at all grades, and reading achievement rose in grades 1-8 and remained stable or decreased in grades 9-11. Language performance increased at all grades on the C.T.B.S. and increased in grades 1-8 on the CAT.

Similarly, composite scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills have risen steadily since the mid- to late 1970’s in grades 3-8, and scores on the Iowa Test of Educational Development rose for high-school grades during that period.

And scores on the Stanford Achievement Test showed “very significant gains” in achievement between 1973 and 1982, and steady gains between 1982 and 1986, said Joanne Lenke, the executive vice president of the Psychological Corporation, which publishes the test.

However, Ms. Lenke noted, since that time, the gains “have slowed down somewhat, and, in fact, have disappeared at the high-school level .”

‘Across the Board’

Performance on college-admissions tests has shown a different pattern, however.

Average verbal scores on the S.A.T. have declined for the past five years, and, in 1991, they reached an all-time low of 422, out of a possible 800. Average math scores fell this year for the first time since 1980, to 474 out of 800.

On the American College Testing Program test, average scores have remained stable, at 20.6 out of 35, for the past five years.

But Mr. Bracey of the N.E.A. said that the average scores on the college-admissions tests in fact mask genuine improvements. The average scores have gone down, he said, because a greater number of minority-group members--who tend to perform less well than whites--took the test. In 1991, 28 percent of the S.A.T. takers were minorities, compared with 13 percent in 1973.

“The composition has changed,” he said. “When it has changed in the past, it affected scores.”

In addition, Mr. Hodgkinson noted, S.A.T. scores Of students in 31 states and the District of Columbia rose between 1981 and 1991.

Mr. Honig also pointed out that the proportion of students performing at high levels on the S.A.T. and on the NAEP have increased sharply.

During the 1980’s, he said, the proportion of the senior class that scored above 600 on the S.A.T. math section rose by 35 percent, while those performing at high levels on the verbal section rose by 20 percent to 25 percent.

Similarly, the proportion of 17-year-olds that reached level 300-the next-to-highest level--on the NAEP reading test rose by 8 percent during the 1980’s, while the number reaching that level on the math test rose by 14 percent. The number reaching the highest level of performance rose even more sharply, Mr. Honig said.

“Do they work hard enough and know enough? No,” the California superintendent said. “But the improvement is not just at lower levels. It’s across the board.”

Researchers and educators familiar with the test-score data confirm that the pattern is one of improvement. But, they caution, the news is not all positive.

For one thing, noted Daniel M. Koretz, a senior social scientist for the RAND Corporation, the increases that have taken place have, at best, stopped a hemorrhage in performance that took place during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

“There clearly was a decline in the 1960’s and 1970’s,” he said. “It was not trivial. The rebound since then has been spotty.”

The most recent NAEP report, for example, showed that not all students have shown improvement. On the NAEP reading test, the performance of 13-year-olds has remained stable over the past two decades, while that of 9-year-olds declined during the 1980’s, the report notes.

In addition, writing performance was unchanged between 1984 and 1990 for 4th and 11th graders, and declined among 8th graders, it says.

Mr. Koretz also pointed out that, despite the increases at the upper levels of performance, the number of students who attain such levels is very small. For example, he noted, the proportion of students attaining a score of 600 on the verbal portion of the S.A.T. rose from 5 percent to 7 percent.

“If it is good news,” he said, “it’s not affecting a lot of kids.”

The increases that have occurred have largely been at the level of basic skills, particularly among minorities, said Susan H. Fuhrman, director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at Rutgers University. These gains reflect the emphasis schools have placed on boosting such skills, she said.

Few students, on the other hand, can perform complex tasks or think critically, said Linda Darling-Hammond, a co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“My own view is that American schools are in quite bad shape relative to what they need to be,” Ms. Darling-Hammond said. “Even America’s ‘good’ schools can be accused of providing very little preparation for kids to be independent thinkers.”

“They do not prepare students for democratic life,” she added.

But Mr. Bracey questioned whether educators’ expectations for student performance are “out of line with reality.”

“You’d have to couple [critiques] with a demonstration that an inability to do these problems causes problems later on in life,” Mr. Bracey said. “There is no evidence I can find that a higher percentage could do them sometime in the past.”

‘Meaningless’ Comparisons?

Some educators argued, however, that comparisons with Americans’ past performance are irrelevant.

“I don’t remember anybody being happy with schools in 1970,” Ms. Ravitch said.

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said it is no surprise that students are performing at 1970 levels, since schools tend to be organized the same way they were 20 years ago. Meanwhile, he pointed out, America’s economic competitors have improved their school systems.

“If I buy a car, I don’t give a damn if it’s better than the 1970 model,” Mr. Shanker said. “I care whether it’s better than the Japanese car across the street.”

But many of the revisionists point to Ms. Rotberg’s article, which has cast doubt on the widely publicized international comparisons of student achievement. She notes in the article that the studies compare nations with different proportions of students enrolled in math and science, and raises questions about how representative the samples are.

“I can’t say they are invalid,” Mr. Bracey said. “The word I used was meaningless.” There is so much fuzziness, I’m not sure about those studies.”

Mr. Koretz of RAND said, however, that the technical problems with the international studies do not totally invalidate their conclusions.

“Any of those comparisons are questionable enough that I wouldn’t put a whole lot of stock in them,” he said. ‘but when you have a variety of different international studies going back almost 30 years--studies that differ substantially in their strengths and weaknesses--all of them saying we are mediocre, it’s difficult to say all of them are wrong.”

In addition to challenging the data used in the revisionists’ arguments, some educators also claim that other evidence suggests that schools are doing poorly.

The fact that some schools can produce effective results, said Mr. Newman of the E.C.S., demonstrates that all schools can do better. He pointed to the example of La Guardia Community College in New York City, which operates a school for students who have dropped out of the city’s public high schools.

“If they can do it with dropouts, why can’t we do it with the rest of the kids?” Mr. Newman asked.

Christopher T. Cross, the vice president for education for the Business Roundtable, also noted that surveys of business leaders consistently point out that businesses have difficulty finding qualified employees.

“You can look at the numbers, and be captivated by the numbers, and ignore the evidence around you,” he said.

Mr. Cross, a former assistant U.S. secretary of education for educational research and improvement, also argued that reform demands a goal to strive for, not a record of past gains.

“People want and need a sense of what the objective is,” he said. “If you’re traveling by car from New York to San Francisco, it doesn’t help to know you’ve gone 150 miles; it helps to know you have 2,700 miles to go.”

But Mr. Cuban of Stanford denied that pointing out how far schools have come would lead to complacency. Schools have multiple goals-such as preparing students to work productively and enabling them to think for themselves--and doing well in one area is not enough, he said.

“You can never be self-satisfied,” Mr. Cuban said. “The work is always there for you.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 1991 edition of Education Week as Revisionists Take Aim at Gloomy View of Schools Much More Progress Needed, Critics Assert