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Tests Show School Reform Takes Time;Back-to-Basics Movement Produces Results

Kenneth J. Cooper. "Educators: Tests Show
School Reform Takes Time;Back-to-Basics Movement Produces Results,
but Students Lag in Critical Thinking Skills :[FINAL
Edition]. " The Washington Post (pre-1997
  [Washington, D.C.] 8  Apr. 1990,
a04. Washington


Copyright The Washington Post Company Apr
8, 1990

A series of test results announced this year that have shown
U.S. students performing dismally in history, civics, geography,
reading and writing also show, educators say, that it takes a long
time to change the nation’s education system.

The results of the 1988 National Assessment of Educational
Progress, announced this year, provide evidence that the
back-to-basics movement begun in the 1970s succeeded, a decade or
more later, in giving students a better command of factual
information and improving their performance on simple academic
tasks, the educators say.

But students did not demonstrate advances in thinking critically
or communicating ideas, the kind of sophisticated skills that are
in demand in today’s job market.

"We have successfully gotten back to the basics as a country,
and that was worth doing. But we haven’t gotten beyond the basics
in any of the core subjects," said Chester E. Finn Jr., an
education professor at Vanderbilt University and chairman of the
National Assessment’s board.

"It took us a decade to see the impact of the emphasis on going
back to the basics," said Ina Mullis, who analyzes the test data
for the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J. Under
contract with the Education Department, the private service
administers the National Assessment to large samples of students in
grades four, eight, 11 and 12.

Minorities nationwide and students in the Southeast made larger
gains in basic skills, results that Christopher T. Cross, assistant
secretary of education in charge of research, attributed to
remedial education programs funded by states and the federal

"In the basic-skill areas, the Southeast has made substantial
gains," Cross said. The test’s sponsors repeatedly have cited gains
by black and Hispanic students, particularly in reading, as the
bright spots in the results. But both minorities and southeastern
students still lag behind the rest of the country.

The educators find much less evidence in the test results of any
impact from school improvement efforts attempted since 1983, when a
landmark education report declared the United States "A Nation At
Risk." The changes, such as more rigorous graduation requirements
and higher teacher salaries, were intended to help implant in
students the skills needed to compete successfully in the world

"I would have to say the five-year impact of these reforms is
pretty puny," said Finn, who added that he was "not ready to
declare failure" because "five years is a short time in the life of
an education system."

No more than 6 percent of the students rated at the top level of
proficiency in any subject, an indication that students are not
mastering the most sophisticated skills.

Another indication is the performance of average students. In
geography, for instance, they did fairly well at locating major
countries on the world map but had difficulty interpreting graphs
and charts. They knew about the major events in U.S. history but
had difficulty explaining what they meant. They could compose
sentences with correct grammar but had trouble writing persuasively
or expressing ideas.

Mullis said the 1983 report appeared to have had an impact in
one area-homework. In a question asked along with the reading test,
fewer students in 1988 than in 1984 answered "none" when asked how
much time they spent on daily homework assignments. But "less than
one hour" remained the most common response of students in grades
four, eight and 12.

The "A Nation At Risk" report, commissioned by then-Education
Secretary T.H. Bell, recommended "far more" homework than was being
assigned in 1983.

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