Test scores have risen and school dropout rates have declined in schools throughout the country, including the District, Maryland and Virginia, Education Secretary T. H. Bell said yesterday as he proclaimed "the beginnings of an academic turnaround."
Bell, holding a press conference on his last day in Washington before he leaves office, displayed a chart of statistics that showed an improvement in both measures of school performance since 1982, in contrast to a deterioration over the previous decade.
"We don't want to be too early in declaring that we have an academic turnaround but the indicators look good," Bell said.
The massive compilation of data is the second round of state-by-state comparisons that Bell has released. Like last year's report, which included changes between 1972 and 1982, the new figures show no significant relationship between achievement and school resources, such as spending per pupil, class size and average teacher salaries.
However, like much other education research, the new data indicate that demographic factors such as poverty, race and the general level of education in a community do have a strong impact, although some of the greatest gains in recent years have been made in relatively low-income states, including South Carolina, Kentucky and Utah.
"The kids can learn. All of them can learn," said Floretta McKenzie, the superintendent of District of Columbia schools, which showed a two-point gain on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and a 2.6 percentage point increase in the percent of students graduating high school.
The District has the nation's second-highest poverty rate for children, after Mississippi. But McKenzie said, "We don't dwell on that too hard. We couldn't get anywhere if we did."
Despite its gains, the District's combined average score on the verbal and mathematics parts of the SAT, which is taken by college-bound high school seniors, was still relatively low.
At 823 it was ahead of only two states -- South Carolina and Georgia -- where most students take the SAT rather than a rival college entrance exam conducted by the American College Testing Program (ACT).
In Maryland average SAT scores went up eight points over the past two years after dropping 47 points over the previous 10. Virginia SAT scores rose by six points since 1982 after a 31-point decline.
The District is the only jurisdiction in Bell's compilation in which current college entrance test scores are above those for 1972. The secretary praised the D.C.schools, but added, "I'm sure they're not satisfied with that because they know their relative position with the other states."
In an interview, McKenzie agreed. "We've made some progress but we're not there yet by any means," she said. "We have much more work to do."
On dropouts, the proportion of ninth graders who graduated from D.C. schools four years later rose from 55.8 percent in 1982 to 58.4 percent in 1983. That figure still was lower than in any state except Louisiana, though other studies indicate it is similar to the rates in many big cities.
When seen in reverse, the figures show a dropout rate of 41.6 percent for the District; 18.6 percent for Maryland, an increase of almost six percent in one year; and 24.3 percent in Virginia, a gain of just under one percentage point.
Nationally, the dropout rate decreased from 27.2 percent to 26.1 percent between 1982 and 1984 after rising from 22.8 percent in 1972. A total of 41 states and the District reduced their dropout rate last year.
During the previous decade dropouts had increased in 40 states, including Maryland and Virginia, though the District had a small decline.
Bell said yesterday that raising academic achievement did not conflict with keeping more youngsters in school despite charges by some critics that efforts to upgrade standards might cause more dropouts.
In a statement he declared that the fact that test scores improved in 32 states over the past two years while declining in only 10 "provides tangible evidence of the improvement that has resulted from the higher standards and expectations we have set for ourselves over the past few years."
Bell praised state governments for increasing the requirements for high school diplomas and experimenting with tying teacher pay to performance. But he said the reform movement had been aided by the 1983 report, decrying a "rising tide of mediocrity" of the National Commission on Excellence, which he appointed, and also by President Reagan's speeches on behalf of higher school standards and discipline.
The new figures put the District third in per pupil school spending nationwide, the same as in 1982; while Virginia rose from 35th to 36th in this measure and Maryland fell from seventh to 10th.
"I think it shows we did better with less," Hornbeck said. "But I don't think any of this is a flash-in-the pan. There's evidence from several other indicators too that we've been making improvements over the past four years."
According to Bell's chart, the three states with the highest SAT scores -- New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Vermont -- ranked 29th, 21st and 23rd in school spending. The three ACT leaders -- Wisconsin, Iowa, and Oregon -- ranked 16th, 20th, and 8th in spending.