Academic journal article Education Next

Ticket to Nowhere: In the Wake of A Nation at Risk, Educators Pledged to Focus Anew on Student Achievement. Two Decades Later, Little Progress Has Been Made. (Feature)

Academic journal article Education Next

Ticket to Nowhere: In the Wake of A Nation at Risk, Educators Pledged to Focus Anew on Student Achievement. Two Decades Later, Little Progress Has Been Made. (Feature)

Article excerpt

VERY LITTLE IN AMERICAN LIFE HAS REMAINED THE SAME SINCE THE release of A Nation at Risk. Automobiles run cleaner and safer, with the invention of the catalytic converter and the air bag. The Internet, fax, and cell phone have transformed communications. New pharmaceuticals, screening equipment, and surgical techniques have improved people's health outcomes and quality of life. Recreational equipment has become so sophisticated that sports can reach new extremes. All tastes and preferences in food are being catered to, from whole-bean coffee and organic foods to frozen pizzas that rival the quality of Domino's or Papa John's.

Indicators of social health have also moved in positive directions. The average child today is growing up in a more learning-friendly family environment than ever before. For one thing, parents are more educated. By 1999, the share of the population over age 25 with a high-school diploma or its equivalent had risen to 83 percent, up from 52 percent in 1970. A quarter of adults now hold college degrees, compared with just 11 percent in 1970. In addition, families are smaller, allowing parents to focus more attention on each child. The share of American families with three children or more declined from 36 percent in 1970 to 15 percent in 2000. Children also spend more of their lives in school: 69 percent of four-year-olds are now enrolled in preschool, compared with 29 percent in 1970. True, immigration has increased, and more children now live in homes where English is not the primary language (17 percent of all children today, compared with 8 percent in 1980). Today, 31 percent of all children do not live wi th both of their parents, up from 15 percent three decades ago. Yet poverty rates have remained essentially unchanged, average incomes have risen steeply, welfare dependency has declined, murder rates have dropped, and drug dependence has abated.

In short, many areas of American life have changed for the better during the past two decades--except, it appears, the K-12 education system. Data from various sources--the SAT, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and international comparisons such as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)--all reveal the same trend: despite 20 years of agitation and reform, much of it sparked by the Risk report, student achievement has at best stagnated, if not declined.

The Standard Deviation

The standard deviation is a statistical concept that will help to compare findings from a variety of assessments. This concept provides a measure of how much scores are spread around their average. In general, a full standard deviation (or 1.0 standard deviations) is considered very large. On the NAEP, for example, a standard deviation is equivalent to roughly the four years of learning between the 4th and 8th grades. If 4th graders score one standard deviation higher than average on the NAEP 4th-grade test, they are performing as well as the average 8th grader would have. Conversely, if low-performing 8th graders score a standard deviation below average on the 8th-grade exam, they are performing no better than the average 4th grader would have.

A full standard deviation also represents the amount by which the performance of Japanese middle schoolers exceeds that of their American peers on the TIMSS math exam. In a more home-grown example, it is the difference between the performance of white and African-American children in math--the so-called black-white test-score gap. This helps to explain why a change of just 50 percent of a standard deviation (0.5 of a standard deviation) is considered substantial, particularly if the change occurs within a few years. Changes of 10 percent of a standard deviation are usually considered to be quite small, but even small changes can become big ones if they accumulate over time, If student achievement in America had increased by an average of just 4 percent of a standard deviation in each year of the past two decades, overall test scores would have climbed by nearly 120 percent of a standard deviation. …

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