In the spring of 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education produced a report titled "A Nation at Risk" deploring the state of American education. Although there was argument among President Ronald Reagan's advisers as to whether the report should even be accepted (the arguments centering mostly on whether it would be of political benefit), it was, on April 26.
The 36-page report soon became known as the "paper Sputnik," recalling the 1957 launch by the Soviets of the first man-made satellite. That small globe riveted attention on American schools, which took the blame for letting the Russians get into space first (an absurd charge). "Risk" also captured the nation's attention. And it restored to popularity the sport of pummeling the public schools.
The problem with the report, though, was that it was all wrong -- then and now. Written in stentorian Cold War rhetoric, it declared that "our nation is at risk . . . [from] a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. . . . 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." Whew.
The report followed these rhetorical flourishes with a list of indicators that illustrated the risk. A larger treasury of selected, spun and distorted statistics is hard to imagine. For instance, the booklet declared, "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."
True? Maybe, maybe not. The numbers for 1969 and 1973 didn't really exist. They were extrapolations from the 1977 assessment. Their accuracy was not verifiable. But even if the trend was true for 17-year-olds, it was not true for 13-year-olds or 9-year-olds, the other two ages assessed. Nor was it true for any of the three ages tested in reading or math. Those scores were stable or inching up. The commissioners thus had nine trend lines to look at (three ages by three subjects), only one of which could be used to support crisis rhetoric, and that was the only one they used.
Similarly, "A Nation at Risk" reported: "The College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Tests demonstrated a virtually unbroken decline from 1963 to 1980." This was true. But the College Board's own panel assembled to analyze the decline did not see it as a failure of schools. The fall occurred because of changes in who was taking the SAT and therefore aspiring to go to colleges that required it: more blacks, more women, more students from low-income families, more students with average high school records. All of these changes are associated with lower test scores.
And what, exactly, were we at risk of? According to the report, the danger now was not that the Red Menace might blow us off the globe but that our friends, especially Germany, Japan and Korea, whose students had high test scores, would outsmart us and end our dominance of the world economy: "If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system."
One must admire the sheer audacity of the commissioners for writing such hokum. But this snake oil served school critics well when they blamed our "lousy" schools for the recession of the 1980s. The economy came roaring back, of course, while those of high-scoring "Asian Tiger" nations faltered. Japan's students continue to ace tests, but the country has languished in recession for 12 years. By contrast, the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2002 ranked average-scoring America No. 2 overall (behind Finland) and No. 1 in innovative competitiveness.
Blaming public schools for social ills has a long and dishonorable history, of which the 1983 report is only one particularly egregious example. Yet in the international reading study released this month (and ignored by most media), American students finished ninth among 35 nations. White American students outscored top-ranked Sweden 565 to 561. Americans attending schools with less than 10 percent of the students in poverty (13 percent of all students) scored a whopping 589, and only those attending schools with more than 75 percent of the students in poverty (20 percent of all students) scored below the international average.
These statistics tell us how wealth and poverty affect achievement, and where we need to allocate resources. We don't need to spend billions to test every child every year in reading, math and science, as the No Child Left Behind legislation requires, to find out.
Overall, "A Nation at Risk" was a grand April Fools' joke. No Child Left Behind shows we haven't learned a thing in 20 years.
The writer is a research psychologist.