Gov. George W. Bush of Texas touched a nerve last week when he said the nation was in an “education recession,” setting off a debate on the interpretation of national test data and prompting a sharp response from the secretary of education.
Under the Clinton-Gore administration, the GOP presidential nominee contended, National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in reading, mathematics, and science have stagnated or declined. And achievement gaps between rich and poor, and minority and white, students have risen, he said.
In three days of stumping through hotly contested Western states, Gov. Bush repeatedly told audiences that “America is in the midst of an education recession,” and his campaign released a new television advertisement featuring the statement.
In no time, Democrats went on the offensive. In the past eight years, they said, SAT and NAEP reading scores actually have increased, and students have begun taking more math and science classes. “Under Bush, all 50 states would face an education recession,” declared the campaign of Mr. Bush’s opponent, Vice President Al Gore.
Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley—a staunch supporter of Mr. Gore—released a strongly worded retort to Gov. Bush, who had used a quote from the secretary in sounding his “recession” theme.
According to the Department of Education and news reports, Gov. Bush told supporters at an Oregon elementary school on Sept. 25 that “just the other day, the secretary of education announced Gore’s new ‘three R’s’ for American education— relationships, resilience, and readiness ...
“That sounds nice, but what happened to reading?” Gov. Bush asked.
A day later, Mr. Riley issued his unusually blunt statement.
“The next time Gov. Bush lifts a quote from a speech of mine it would be good for him to read the entire speech before he jumps to a conclusion about who has been working harder to improve reading,” Mr. Riley said. “Gov. Bush’s accusation that we have taken reading out of the three R’s is wrong and misleading; he should know better.”
Gov. Bush’s decision to link his remarks to NAEP data raised questions in the testing community last week. Experts said the data can be hard to interpret, particularly given the changing demographics of student populations.
A Bush campaign staff member said last Thursday that the campaign had extensively analyzed NAEP and other test data and reports before the governor made his claims. The Bush staff concluded that test scores were improving in the 1970s and 1980s, but became stagnant in the past decade.
“We perceive that as a recession, because anything that halts progress is a recession,” said the aide, who did not want to be quoted by name.
But Daniel M. Koretz, a senior social scientist with the RAND Corp., based in Santa Monica, Calif., argued that Mr. Bush had misrepresented the NAEP results. “The term ‘recession’ implies that things are getting worse, and it seems to me very hard to make the case that there’s any recession going on,” he said. “The main pattern you see in the data is slow, inconsistent improvement. ... But even a flat trend is good news because the population is getting so diverse.”
Wilmer S. Cody, a member of the NAEP governing board and a former state schools chief in Kentucky, agreed. “The term ‘education recession’ appears to be inappropriate, given the recent improvements in NAEP,” he said. “I would be the first and loudest to say that we need major improvements in education, but progress is being made [in NAEP scores].”
The percentage of 4th graders deemed “proficient” in reading on NAEP did, in fact, rise from 27 percent in 1994 to 29 percent in 1998, according to results released this past spring. Vice President Gore and other Democrats touted those scores as a sign of improvement.
But a 1999 compilation of test scores by NAEP officials showed little, if any, improvement over the nearly 30-year histories of the math, reading, and science exams. And the gap between black and white students’ scores has widened over the past 12 years, while the results for Hispanic students were mixed, according to the report. (“Gap Widens Between Black and White Students on NAEP,” Sept. 6, 2000.)
Nina Shokraii Rees, the senior education policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation and an education adviser to the Bush campaign, said Clinton administration officials opened themselves up to criticism when they publicized last year’s NAEP reading scores as indications of the success of their initiatives.
“The bottom line is, last year the Clinton-Gore administration claimed credit for the slight increase in reading scores,” she said. The declines in some scores and widening of the achievement gap are well-documented, she added. “This is not something that was made up by a campaign,” she said.
Mr. Koretz said that the persistence of the achievement gap cannot be tied to specific federal policies or the Clinton administration. “The improvement stopped a long time ago, not in the last few years,” he said. “If you’re going to point fingers, you’d have to go back to [former Presidents] Ronald Reagan or George Bush.”
Mr. Cody, meanwhile, said that state policies appear to make more of an impact than federal programs. “I would be doubtful that any one federal policy would have an effect over any short term,” he said.