It's been more than a quarter-century since "A Nation at Risk" was written, widely published, even more widely (in non-educator circles) agreed with, and even-even more widely (in educator circles) ignored.
The April '83 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education is probably most well-known for its quote "if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre education performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war". It's least well-known for the Educational Excellencies' misspelling of "judgment" in their very first paragraph.
Its recommendations for a high school curriculum composed of the New Basics --4 years of English, 3 years of Math, 3 years of Social Studies (an amalgam of the earlier History and Geography with some doctrinal multi-culturalism thrown in) and a half-year of Computer Science (remarkable at a time when a Personal Computer was then still a rarity and IBM itself foresaw the industry future in corporate main-frames rather than pocket-size portables) were never overtly challenged; they just went blithely disregarded. Maybe that was partially because the written critique wasn't particularly welcomed by the intellectually superior educator class, coming as it did from an Administration whose Chief Executive they typically referred to as "an amiable dunce".
Another cause-for-enlightened-educator-disdain might have been that "basics" aren't as much fun for educational theorists as non-basics: since 1964 retired New York State school superintendent John Henry Martin had been trolling remarkably successfully for lavish funding for his magnet schools concept, and indeed in the classic example of the case, only a year after "A Nation at Risk" (1983) a federal judge was ordering (1984) the Kansas City schools to build attractions ranging from TV studios and a zoo to a robotic lab and a model UN auditorium (not the same thing) in order to, among other goals, improve student achievement. Not much in Judge Russell Clark's ruling requiring more attention to basics and more application of standards to measure achievement. It never worked as promised, a whole 'nother story.
A Federal measurement of student achievement, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, using tests based on standards, each matched to a given grade level, had been initiated a dozen years earlier, and it likewise went mostly ignored, the consistently dismal student scores (averaging in the low 200s out of a possible 500) went locally unpublished, and class subject matter continued to move away from, say, grammar and multiplication tables towards, for example, the adoption of "creative spelling", teaching of Ebonics as a real language, the New Math adoption of "set theory", and the maybe-not-apocryphal story of the arithmetical exercise asking "if four loggers can each clear a half-acre a day, how many wilderness hectares can they destroy in a week and how will the dispossessed wildlife feel?" Ignored until 2001, that is.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress uses a small sample of students in each State to gauge achievement in reading, math, science, and even, according to the website, arts and civics at the 4th and 8th grade levels, and the results have been published annually in the National Digest of Educational Statistics, enabling those who choose to look to see how, for example, MA frequently came out better than MI (lots of publicity in MA) and how even MA shows a student proficiency rate of about a third (not a lot of publicity in MA) and how test scores have held stagnant even as class sizes have shrunk and inflation-adjusted spending has quadrupled.
But in 2001 a new federal rule required that schools get almost all their students to "proficient" by 2014, or else, and the system instantly objected, arguing that getting students to proficient wasn't their responsibility in any measurable way. They sued the Feds, in a Vermont-led lawsuit, for more money. And test scores haven't gone up, even as the deadline year 2014 has approached.
It's now only 4 years away; a new tactic is needed. In Vermont, for example, the average 4th grade reading score is 229, compared to the "proficient" cut-point of 238. Multiply that by 49 other states and a D.C., and you get a political situation wherein Prez 44 announces that he will (in a quote from a Wall Street Journal, March 23 op-ed) "...junk NCLB's requirement that students be proficient in reading and math by 2014, and replace it with an equally unrealistic goal (if you take the words at face value, I would add) of making all kids "college-ready" by 2020".
Roughly a third of those who matriculate aren't really college-ready now, and require remedial (that means high-school-level) courses, content their teachers had chosen not to teach, or the students had chosen not to learn, in classes at the high school level that would now be mandatory within the halls of supposedly-higher-ed ivy. "College-ready", I would guess, is the phrase chosen to replace numerical test scores precisely because it lends itself to any sort of non-quantitative subjective interpretation needed to conceal the actual facts of semi-illiteracy and -numeracy which prevail for the majority of high school grads.
To revert to the football analogy in the caption of this column, it's the declaration that a 3-point punt be valued, when "deemed" necessary, right up there with the unachievable 6-point touchdown, which has become something it's preferable not to talk about any more.
The history of public education's response to the 40-year-old NAEP tests with quantitative scoring of achievement, and the 10-year-old NCLB requirement that such scores be used to prove "proficiency" in basic subject matter, has been first to ignore and then to punt; the adoption of easier tests (to finesse the NCLB "proficiency" requirement) than the NAEP series by 49 States was intended (with plausible deniability, of course) to generate seemingly better numbers without actually doing better instruction.
In Vermont, for example, the 2/3 or so of students who can't make "proficient" on the Federal tests become the 2/3 or so who miraculously can, on the alternative NECAPs. To use yet anther analogy, it's the Gresham's Law principle -"bad money drives out good"- in education, where deliberately-designed easier tests are purchased and deployed to supplant more rigorous ones, with the same intent: to deceive the gullible and reward the issuers.
I'd like to be able to summarize with evidence that parental reaction to these dismal historical trends has been uniformly negative, but the returns on "client satisfaction" are mixed. More next week.
Former Vermonter Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.