Friday, March 2, 2007

It has been nearly a quarter century since a federal commission issued its devastating critique of American elementary and secondary education. Entitled “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform,” the report famously declared that a “rising tide of mediocrity” afflicted America’s schools. Society’s educational foundations had eroded so much, the 1983 report warned, that the status quo “threatens our very future as a nation and a people.” Among other outrages, an estimated 13 percent of 17-year-olds were functionally illiterate.

The report generated a flurry of reforms. State after state (and school district after school district) redesigned their curricula and made them more rigorous; established minimum course requirements in math, science and foreign languages; and ostensibly attacked the illiteracy crisis with a vengeance. Last but surely not least, governments at all levels hurled countless billions of dollars at the problem. Voters passed one local school initiative after another. States raised sales taxes and embraced lotteries to finance reforms and increase teacher salaries (and, it turns out, to publicly fund lavish pension and post-retirement health programs for teachers and administrators even as these costly benefits were disappearing in the private sector).

Nearly a quarter century after “A Nation at Risk” appeared, what do we have to show for it? Well, the Department of Education released two reports last month that should cause serious concern among those footing the bill and hiring the output of our public education system. Both reports are part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which periodically administers tests in reading, math, science, history and other subjects at the elementary and secondary grade levels. As the only assessment system that is nationally conducted at different levels (generally fourth, eighth and 12th grades), NAEP bills itself as “the nation’s report card.”

One of the recent reports — “America’s High School Graduates: Results from the 2005 NAEP High School Transcript Study” — revealed that high-school graduates in 2005 had “earned about three credits more than their 1990 counterparts.” Those extra credits represented about 360 hours of additional instruction during their high school careers. Not only did students take more math courses in 2005, for example, but many students had also completed significantly more challenging curricula. In 2005, 17 percent of graduates had completed a “standard” curriculum, 41 percent completed a “midlevel” curriculum and 10 percent completed a “rigorous” curriculum. Fifteen years earlier, the percentages were 9 percent (standard), 26 percent (midlevel) and 5 percent (rigorous). Grade point averages (GPA) increased as well. The average overall GPA increased from 2.68 in 1990 to 2.98 (virtually a B level) in 2005.

Thanks to the second report issued last month by NAEP, it is fairly obvious that taxpayers have mostly been financing severe outbreaks of “grade inflation” and “course inflation.” The second NAEP report assessed performance of high-school seniors in reading and mathematics. The results were devastating, especially when one keeps in mind that outrageously high percentages of students drop out before their class graduates. A 2005 study — “Graduation Counts: A Report of the National Governors Association Task Force on State High School Graduation Data” — concluded that “about a third of our students are not graduating from high school.” Breaking the data down demographically, the report revealed that “about three-fourths of white students graduate from high school, but only half of African American and Hispanic students do.” Thus, NAEP’s 12th-grade reading and math exams were taken by large samples (more than 12,000 in reading and more than 9,000 in math) representing the roughly 75 percent of white students and 50 percent of blacks and Hispanics who had not dropped out.

Between 1992 and 2005, the percentage of 12th-grade students who read below the basic level increased from 20 percent to 27 percent. For decades, the goal has been for students to perform at the proficient level, where students demonstrate competency over challenging subject matter. (The basic level denotes only partial mastery, and “below basic” represents less than that.) In 2005, only 35 percent of 12th graders read at or above the proficient level, down from 40 percent in 1992. Only 16 percent of black seniors and 20 percent of Hispanic seniors achieved the proficient reading level in 2005.

The results were even worse for math. Only 23 percent of 12th-grade students performed at or above the proficient level. Nearly two out of five failed even to reach the basic level. Only 29 percent of white students could perform math at the proficient level. Among the estimated 50 percent who had not dropped out, only 6 percent of black 12th-graders and 8 percent of Hispanic seniors reached the proficient level. Because the math test changed so much, comparison with prior years was not possible.

Meanwhile, dear taxpayer, in constant (i.e., inflation-adjusted) 2004-2005 dollars, expenditures per pupil (average daily attendance) increased from $6,256 (1982-83) by 35 percent to $8,425 (1991-92) and by another 24 percent to $10,464 (2002-03), according to the 2005 Digest of Education Statistics.

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