Farsighted or Foolish? The 20th Anniversary of Nation at Risk
By Gerald W. Bracey

                 Twenty years ago, after a bitter dispute among White House insiders, Ronald Reagan
                 officially accepted A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, a report
                 delivered to Reagan by secretary of education Terrel Bell through his National Commission
                 on Excellence in Education.

                 The report played big in the media—28 articles in the Washington Post alone—but it had
                 more use as a political tract. The White House m oderates, especially James Baker and
                 Michael Deaver, thought the report contained many issues on which Reagan could
                 campaign. Indeed, the commissioners soon came to feel they had been used to further
                 political ends, notably Reagan's reelection in 1984. For his part, Bell in later years noted
                 that the report stole the education issue from the Democrats and that Reagan's speeches
                 about the importance of education served as cover for his cuts in welfare, aid to dependent
                 children, Medicaid and other social programs.

                 Any students who were in first grade when
                 A Nation at Risk appeared and who went
                 directly from high school graduation into
                 the work force have now been there
                 almost nine years. Those who went on to
                 bachelor's degrees have been on the job
                 for nearly five years. Despite the dire
                 predictions of national economic collapse
                 without immediate education reform, our
                 national productivity has soared since
                 those predictions were made. What, then,
                 are we to make of A Nation at Risk 20
                 years on?

                 The report's stentorian Cold War rhetoric
                 still commands attention: "If an unfriendly
                 foreign power had attempted to impose on
                 America the mediocre educational
                 performance that exists today, we might
                 well have viewed it as an act of war" (pg.

                 By contrast, the report's recommendations
                 were banal. They called for nothing new,
                 only for more of the same: more science,
                 more mathematics, more computer
                 science, more foreign language, more
                 homework, more rigorous courses, more
                 time-on-task, more hours in the school
                 day, more days in the school year, more
                 training for teachers, more money for
                 teachers. And even those mundane
                 recommendations were based on a
                 veritable treasury of slanted, spun, and
                 distorted statistics.

                 Stop worrying so much about the Red Menace, the booklet said. The threat was not that
                 our enemies would bomb us off the planet, but that our friends—especially Germany,
                 Japan, and South Korea—would outsmart us and wrest control of the world economy.

                 The commission members tightly yoked the nation's global competitiveness to how well our
                 13-year- olds bubbled in test answer sheets. The theory was, to be kind, without merit.
                 Nevertheless, it became very popular in the late 1980s, when the nation slid into the
                 recession that would cost George H. W. Bush a second term. One then heard many
                 variations of "lousy schools are producing a lousy work force and that's killing us in the
                 global marketplace." The economy, however, was not listening to the litany and came
                 roaring back.

                 During the years after the publication of A Nation at Risk, critics of the schools not only
                 hyped the alleged bad news but also deliberately suppressed good news—or ignored it
                 when they couldn't actually suppress it. The most egregious example was the suppression
                 of the Sandia Report. Assembled in 1990 by engineers at Sandia National Laboratories in
                 Albuquerque, the report presented 78 pages of graphs and tables and 78 pages of text to
                 explain them. It concluded that, while there were many problems in public education, there
                 was no systemwide crisis.

                 Secretary of Energy James Watkins, who had asked for the report, called it "dead wrong"
                 in the Albuquerque Journal. Briefed by the Sandia engineers who compiled it, Deputy
                 Secretary of Education and former Xerox CEO David Kearns told them, "You bury this or
                 I'll bury you." The engineers were forbidden to leave New Mexico to discuss the report.
                 Officially, according to Diane Ravitch, then assistant secretary of education, the report was
                 undergoing "peer review" by other agencies (an unprecedented occurrence) and was not
                 ready for publication.

                 Lee Bray, the vice president of Sandia, supervised the engineers who produced the report.
                 I asked Bray, now retired, about the fate of the report. He affirmed that it was definitely
                 and deliberately suppressed.

                 There were other instances of accentuating the negative in the wake of A Nation at Risk.
                 In February 1992, a small international comparison in mathematics and science appeared.
                 America's ranks were largely, but not entirely, low, although actual scores were near the
                 international averages. Critics would hammer the schools with this international study for

                 Five months after the math/science study, another international comparison appeared, this
                 one in reading. No one knew. American 9-year-olds were second in the world in reading
                 among the 27 nations tested. American 14-year-olds were eighth out of 31 countries, but
                 only Finland had a significantly higher score.

                 While A Nation at Risk offered a litany of spun statistics about the risks the nation faced,
                 its authors and fellow believers presented no actual data to support the contention that high
                 test scores implied competitiveness—only the most circumstantial of evidence. The
                 arguments heard around the country typically went like this: "Asian nations have high test
                 scores. Asian nations, especially Japan, have experienced economic miracles. Therefore,
                 the high test scores produced the economic good times." Thus the National Commission on
                 Excellence in Education—and many school critics as well—made a mistake that no
                 educated person should: they confused correlation with causation.

                 The "data" on education and competitiveness consisted largely of testimonials from
                 Americans who had visited Japanese schools. I once asked Paul George of the University
                 of Florida about the difficulty of gaining entrance to any less-than-stellar Japanese schools.
                 George has spent years in Japanese schools of various kinds. His reply was succinct:
                 "Look, there are 27 high schools in Osaka, ranked 1 to 27. You can easily get into the top
                 few. You would have a much harder time getting into number 12 or number 13. Not even
                 Japanese researchers can get into number 27."

                 The proponents of the test-score theory of economic health grew quiet after the Japanese
                 discovered that the emperor's palace and grounds were actually not worth more than the
                 entire state of California. Japan has foundered economically now for 12 years. The
                 government admits that bad loans from banks to corporations amount to more than 10% of
                 its Gross Domestic Product. Some estimate the size of the bad loans as high as 75% of

                 The case of Japan presents a counterexample to the idea that high test scores ensure a
                 thriving economy. But there is a more general method available to test the hypothesis put
                 forth in A Nation at Risk. I located 35 nations that were ranked in the Third International
                 Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) eighth-grade tests and were also ranked for
                 global competitiveness by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Geneva think tank.
                 Among these 35, the US was number one in competitiveness in 2001. Among all 75
                 countries that the WEF ranked in its 2001-2002 report, the US was number two, trailing
                 Finland. The rank order correlation coefficient between test scores and competitiveness
                 was +.19, virtually zero. If five countries that scored low on both variables were removed
                 from the list, the coefficient actually became negative.

                 A Nation at Risk fabricated its case for the connection between education and
                 competitiveness out of whole cloth, but to make its case for the dire state of American
                 education, it did provide a lot of statistics. Consider these:

                 1. "There was a steady decline in science achievement scores of U.S. 17-year-olds as
                 measured by national assessments of science in 1969, 1973, and 1977" (pg. 9). Maybe,
                 maybe not. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was not originally
                 designed to produce trends, and the scores for 1969 and 1973 are backward
                 extrapolations from the 1977 assessment. In any case, the declines were smaller for 9- and
                 13-year-olds and had already been wiped out by gains on the 1982 assessment. Scores for
                 reading and math for all three ages assessed by NAEP were stable or inching upward. The
                 commissioners thus had nine trendlines (three ages times three subjects), only one of which
                 could be used to support crisis rhetoric. That was the only one they reported.

                 2. "The College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Tests demonstrate a virtually unbroken decline
                 from 1963 to 1980" (pg. 8-9). This was true. But the College Board's own investigative
                 panel described a complex trend to which many variables contributed. It ascribed most of
                 the decline to changes in who was taking the test—more minorities, more women, more
                 students with mediocre high school records, more students from low-income families. All of
                 those demographic changes are associated with lower scores on any test. It would have
                 been very suspicious if the scores had not declined.

                 3. "Average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests is now lower
                 than 26 years ago when Sputnik was launched" (pg. 8). But in order to examine trends in
                 test scores over time, one needs a test that is referenced to a fixed standard where each
                 new form is equated to the earlier form. At the time, most companies that produced
                 standardized tests did not equate them from form to form over time. Instead, they used a
                 "floating norm." Whenever they renormed their tests, whatever raw score corresponded to
                 the 50th percentile became the new norm. Only the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS,
                 grades 3-8) and the Iowa Tests of Educational Development (ITED, grades 9-12) were
                 referenced to a fixed standard and equated from form to form, beginning in 1955.

                 It is instructive to examine what the nation was experiencing during the 10 years of falling
                 test scores from 1965 to 1975. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, and 1965
                 opened with the Watts riots in Los Angeles. The decade also brought us the Black
                 Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Army, Students for a Democratic Society, the Free
                 Speech Movement, the Summer of Love, Woodstock, Altamont, Ken Kesey and his
                 LSD-laced band of Merry Pranksters, the Kent State atrocities, and the 1968 Chicago
                 Police Riot. Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X were all
                 assassinated. The nation became obsessed with and depressed by first the war in Vietnam
                 and then Watergate. "Recreational drugs"—pot, acid, speed, Quaaludes, amyl nitrate—had
                 become popular. If you remember the Sixties, the saying goes, you weren't there.

                 Under these conditions of social upheaval, centered in the schools and universities, it would
                 have been a miracle if test scores had not fallen.

                 Alas, we must recognize that good news about public schools serves no one's reform
                 agenda—even if it does make teachers, students, parents, and administrators feel a little
                 better. Conservatives want vouchers and tuition tax credits; liberals want more resources
                 for schools; free marketers want to privatize the schools and make money; fundamentalists
                 want to teach religion and not worry about the First Amendment; Catholic schools want to
                 stanch their student hemorrhage; and home schooling advocates want just that. All groups
                 believe that they will improve their chances of getting what they want if they pummel the

                 It has been 20 years since A Nation at Risk appeared. It was false then and is false now.
                 Today, the laments are old and tired. "Test Scores Lag as School Spending Soars"
                 trumpeted the headline of a 2002 press release from the American Legislative Exchange
                 Council. Ho hum. The various special interest groups in education need another treatise to
                 rally round. And now they have one. It's called No Child Left Behind. It's a weapon of
                 mass destruction, and the target is the public school system. Today, our public schools are
                 truly at risk.

                 Gerald W. Bracey is an associate for the High/Scope Foundation in Ypsilanti,
                 Michigan, and an associate professor at George Mason University. His most recent
                 book is What You Need to Know About the War Against America's Public Schools
                 (Allyn and Bacon/Longman, 2003). The above was adapted from an article in the
                 April 2003 issue of Phi Delta Kappan. Reprinted with permission.


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