In April 1983, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell released a report entitled A Nation at Risk. It was the work of an eighteen-member National Commission on Excellence in Education appointed to "make practical recommendations for action." The appointment had been inspired in part by concern over the nationwide decline in scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests that had begun in 1963 and continued in 17 of the next 20 years. Coincidentally, a slight improvement in the scores occurred in 1982, as well as in 1983 and 1984, but that did not alleviate concerns about the quality of the nation's schools.
A 1981 Gallup poll and a study by the Charles F. Kettering Foundation had shown that the majority of Americans wanted more demanding curricula, more control over student behavior, and more attention to ethical concerns. But the surveys also detected a growing feeling that parents were more deficient than schools in the upbringing of their children. Polls also showed a continued decline in the public's willingness to support schools financially. Rejection of proposed tax increases to support school improvements was common.
A Nation at Risk presented a comprehensive indictment of American education, citing high rates of adult illiteracy, declining SAT scores, and poor performance on nineteen international academic achievement tests. On none of these tests had American children ranked first or second. The "educational foundations of our society," the report contended, "are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people." The tragedy, it continued, was