Q: Is the So-Called Educational Crisis a Myth Created by Conservatives?

By Berliner, David C.; Steinberg, Laurence | Insight on the News, October 7, 1996 | Go to article overview

Q: Is the So-Called Educational Crisis a Myth Created by Conservatives?


Berliner, David C., Steinberg, Laurence, Insight on the News


It seems that every generation condemns the schools its children attend. Many of todays school critics are nostalgic for a past that certainly was not nearly as nice as they remember it. In 1959, an "education crisis" was declared by Adm. Hyman Rickover, who insisted that Americas schools were failures, and that unless things changed radically, it was inevitable that the United States would lose in economic and military competition with the better-educated Russians. Reader's Digest and other popular magazines of the fifties reported that students could not identify major cities in the United States, write literate essays or solve simple math problems. America was said to be pursuing Affective goals, not paying attention to basic academics, failing to set common educational standards and, even worse, ignoring religion in the schools.

If these criticisms from 40 to 50 years ago sound familiar, it's because the same ones are trotted out every few years by an older generation unhappy with its youth. After all, criticism of our public schools is as American as apple pie and has been going on since they were founded. Playwright Jane Wagner had it right when she observed that humans developed language because of their deep inner need to complain! Today, however, complaints about the public schools are so widespread that most Americans are beginning to believe the schools actually have failed. That is not so. Let us look at the facts.

Although the decline in average scores on the Scholastic Assessment Tests, or SAT, is real, it actually represents a triumph for American education. Former Education Secretary William Bennett and other conservatives repeatedly cite the decline in SAT scores as "proof" that students are dumber, teachers don't deliver, business is doomed to failure and our nation is at risk. But Bennett, who now edits books on virtue, has not been completely honest with the American people. He has neglected to mention that the SAT is an aptitude test, which predicts the future (in this case, college grades). The SAT does not assess the past, that is what an achievement test does.

Bennett has used the SAT as if it measured school achievement on a representative sample of high-school students, but it isn't designed for that. The SAT simply predicts the likelihood of success during the first year of college. There are no scales assessing social studies, history, art or music, and none on science. The test does not measure what kids have studied in school. By calling the test an achievement test Bennett violates the guidelines issued by the the test developers and all the experts in assessment. But uninformed critics continue to interpret the test in an invalid way.

The conservative critics also say the average scores dropped 90 points between the early sixties and the mid-seventies, and that certainly scared a lot of Americans. However, those were not raw points but "scaled" points. Think of it this way: When a hockey team gets four goals, it gets a score of 4, when a football team makes four goals, it may get a score of 28, but it only scored four times. So the SAT didn't really go down 90 points, it dropped about seven raw score items, a loss of 5 percent over more than 30 years. That's not nearly as scary as a 90-point drop, and it seems unlikely that America has been ruined because of this small drop in correct answers to multiple-choice test items.

In fact, the drop is remarkably small, considering the fact that the graduating high-school students of 50 years ago, whose scores set a benchmark for the scores of todays students, were not ordinary people. They predominantly were from wealthy families living in the Northeast. Almost half of them had attended private schools, and most of them wanted to go to the Ivy schools such as Yale and Harvard. This elite group took the first SATs in 1941, a year when fewer than 40 percent of ordinary American youth graduated high school. …

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