‘Wall Chart’ Data Show Passivity, Secretary Warns

By Robert Rothman — May 09, 1990 7 min read

Washington--Student achievement in the United States has “reached a plateau” after four straight years of little or no improvement, Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos said in releasing the annual state education-performance chart last week.

The seventh annual “wall chart” indicates that, despite some gains by minorities, overall student performance on standardized college-admission tests has shown no improvement over the past four years, and high-school graduation rates have remained stable since 1987.

This stagnation has occurred, Mr. Cavazos said, despite record levels of spending on education by districts, states, and the federal government.

See chart on pages 28-30.

“The latest wall chart makes it clear that as a nation we are still not seriously committed to improving education for all Americans,” Mr. Cavazos told a press conference here. “Often I see indifference, complacency, and passivity, despite the need for immediate and radical school reform.”

Referring to the national education goals set by President Bush and the National Governors’ Association, Mr. Cavazos called on parents and educators to commit themselves--"as the President and the governors have committed the nation--to the work of education reform.”

School officials, however, sharply criticized the wall chart as misleading, and said it would do little to spur improvements toward meeting the national goals. Only one of the goals set by President Bush and the governors--raising the graduation rate--is included on the chart.

“The Education Department’s ‘wall chart’ has as much to offer educational improvement as the Edsel offered the automotive industry,” said Timothy J. Dyer, president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “The Education Department should wake up to the fact that this nation is adopting national goals on education.”

Bill Honig, California’s superintendent of public instruction, called the chart a politically motivated attempt to push the Bush Administration’s reform agenda. Other indicators of performance, he said, would have shown real gains in student achievement.

“It’s almost as if he went out of his way to kick teachers and schools,” Mr. Honig said. “What’s the point--that we need to make more progress? We know that.”

“Teachers need credit if they’ve done a good job, and they’ve done a good job,” he said.

‘Only Measure We Have’

Created in 1984 by then-Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, the wall chart has increasingly come under fire from educators and state officials, who contend that it compares states unfairly and offers little guidance for improvement. (See Education Week, May 17, 1989.)

Following last week’s release of the 1990 chart, for example, several organizations renewed their calls for new forms of assessment that they say would gauge peformance more accurately than the standardized-test scores used on the chart.

Bush Administration officials have also expressed concern that this year’s report might conflict with their work with the governors on national goals. White House officials reportedly asked the Secretary to consider dispensing with it this year.(See Education Week, April 11, 1990.)

Mr. Cavazos acknowledged last week that the chart does not address the areas encompassed by the goals, but said it represents a “starting point for developing strategies designed to achieve” such goals.

“This is the only current measure we have for educational performance,” the Secretary said. “Until we develop other measures, we will have to rely on the wall chart.”

‘Marching to the Same Tune’

The 1990 performance report suggests that student achievement has improved little over the past year.

None of the 28 states where a majority of college-bound students take the American College Testing program test registered gains, the report shows. Scores in 5 states remained the same, and 23 states registered declines.

In the 22 states where students use the Scholastic Aptitude Test, 8 showed improvements, 9 exhibited declines, and 5 remained stable.

Many educators have criticized the use of such test scores as a measure of state performance, because they reflect performance by a self-selected sample of college-bound high-school students.

But Charles E.M. Kolb, deputy undersecretary of education, said reading scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress--which is based on a representative national sample of students--show a similar pattern of stagnation.

“There may be shortcomings [with the sat and the act], and there may be methodological quibbles with the way they are administered,” Mr. Kolb said, “but you can’t get away from the fact that everybody is marching to the same tune.”

But Mr. Honig pointed out that the overall college-entrance-test scores mask genuine improvements by minority students, who were taking the tests in larger numbers. Moreover, he noted, other naep results, including recently published scores in science and mathematics, show substantial gains in performance.

The scores “are not stagnating, they are growing steadily,” Mr.el15lHonig said. “That’s not to say we don’t have a long way to go.”

‘Gross’ Underestimate?

The 1990 report also noted that other measures of achievement suggest there have been gains at higher levels of performance.

The number of schools offering Advanced Placement programs, for example, has climbed substantially since 1982. In 1989, 39.7 percent of high schools offered such programs, compared with 23.5 percent in 1982.

In addition, the proportion of students who earned high scores on the college-admission tests also increased over that period.

But the proportion of test takers who scored 3 or above on the ap tests--a level sufficient to earn credit at most colleges--declined in 1989.

The report also noted that graduation rates remained virtually unchanged between 1987 and 1988. Nationally, 71.1 percent of 9th graders graduated with their cohorts in 1988, compared with 71.7 percent the year before.

Among the states, the wall chart shows, Minnesota is already meeting and exceeding the national goal of having a 90 percent graduation rate. Wyoming and North Dakota are close behind. States with high admission-test scores tend to have high graduation rates, according to the statistical compilation.

But Gordon M. Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the department’s figures, which exclude students who earn a General Educational Development certificate, “grossly” underestimate the graduation rate.

Data from the Census Bureau, Mr. Ambach said, suggest that as many as 85 percent of students eventually earn a high-school diploma. “You don’t get any of that reflected in the chart,” he said.

‘Radical Reforms’

In examining the “inputs” of the education system, Mr. Cavazos noted that spending has increased substantially over the past decade.

Between 1982 and 1989, the report found, average teacher salaries increased by 19 percent, while expenditures per pupil rose by 21 percent.

At the same time, pupil-teacher ratios declined from 18.9-to-1 in 1982 to 17.4-to-1 in the fall of 1988.

The stagnation in student performance, however, suggests that these increases have failed to “erase the education deficit,” Mr. Cavazos said.

“The solution to the education deficit is not found by adding more dollars into the system,” he maintained.

Rather than increase spending, the Secretary said, states should enact “radical reforms” that might lead to improved performance. The 1990 wall chart indicates states’ progress on six such proposals: minimum-competency testing for graduation, “academic bankruptcy” sanctions, performance-based teacher or school incentives, alternative certification for teachers, teacher-certification examinations, and parental-choice plans.

These six reforms have been gaining favor in state capitals, Mr. Cavazos noted. For example, he said, some 35 states now offer parents at least some measure of choice in education, and “full-fledged” choice programs are now in place in five states, compared with one when President Bush took office.

He noted also that Minnesota, the first state to allow open enrollment across district lines, has the highest graduation rate in the nation. But he cautioned that there is as yet no evidence that such reforms are linked to improved student performance.

“Anything is better than what we are doing now,” he concluded. “We’d better try something different.”

But Mr. Honig said genuine improvements would require a comprehensive approach--including additional resources.

“I like choice,” he said, “but I would never say it is the answer to American education’s problems.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 1990 edition of Education Week as ‘Wall Chart’ Data Show Passivity, Secretary Warns