A Nation Still At Risk?

In August of 1981, the former Secretary of Education, Terrell Bell, created the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The purpose of this commission was to examine the quality of education in America and report on the findings. The report was to define what the commission saw as problems affecting American education and offer solutions. In April 1983, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” was released.

The 1983 report stated:
“Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago, has begun to occur — others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.”

The question today is, have we made progress, or are we still a nation at risk? Here is a look the some of the indicators of risk then and now.

International Comparisons:
  • In 1983: International comparisons of student achievement, completed a decade ago, revealed that on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times.
  • Today: In the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. students scored lower in science literacy than their peers in 16 of the other 29 OECD jurisdictions and 6 of the 27 non-OECD jurisdictions. The performance of U.S. 15-year-olds in mathematics literacy and problem solving was lower than the average performance for most Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

Student Achievement:
  • In 1983: Average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests was lower than 26 years ago when Sputnik was launched. There was a steady decline in science achievement scores of U.S. 17-year-olds as measured by national assessments of science in 1969, 1973, and 1977.
  • Today: Overall achievement scores on the NAEP long-term trend reading assessment for the country's 9-, 13-, and 17-year-old students are mixed. The average reading scores at ages 9 and 13 were higher in 2004 than in 1971. The average score for 17-year-olds in 2004 was similar to that in 1971. Results from NAEP long-term trend assessments of mathematics proficiency indicate that the scores of 9- and 13-year-old students were higher in 2004 than in 1973.

SAT Scores:
  • In 1983: The College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) demonstrated a virtually unbroken decline from 1963 to 1980. Average verbal scores fell over 50 points and average mathematics scores dropped nearly 40 points. College Board achievement tests also revealed consistent declines in recent years in such subjects as physics and English.
  • Today: The 2007 Mean SAT Reasoning Test Scores (the test that assesses student reasoning based on knowledge and skills developed by the students in their course work) shows a significant decline in critical reading scores. In 1972, the mean score was 530; in 1983, the mean score was 503; in 2007, the mean score is 502. Fortunately, we have done better in math. In 1972, the score mean score was 509; in 1983, the mean score was 494; in 2007, the mean score is 515.

Perhaps a better measure of the success of education in the U.S. would be a look at the dropout rate. Approximately four of every 100 students who were enrolled in high school in October 2004 left school before October 2005 without completing a high school program. In October of 2005, approximately 3.5 million 16-through 24-year-olds were not enrolled in high school and had not earned a high school diploma or alternative credential such as a GED. These status dropouts accounted for 9.4 percent of the 36.8 million 16- through 24-year-olds in the United States in 2005.

Kids can’t learn if we can’t keep them in school, no matter how we try to reform the education system.