Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 6

Reply / Let's Look Again at the Evidence

In his response to my article, Gerald Bracey made two concessions. First, he now acknowledges a need for general school reform beyond low-income and minority areas. Second, he admits there was a verbal SAT decline. In other areas, he continues to misrepresent the evidence.

All-Time Highs?

In his first report, Bracey claimed that “achievement in American schools is as high as it ever has been”; he now characterizes essentially level NAEP scores as being at “all-time highs.” Others have contributed to this mythology (see, for example, Berliner 1993). I cited William Raspberry, the nationally syndicated columnist, who had interviewed Bracey and echoed his claims. The attorney I quoted, who was the president of the Des Moines school board, had made similar assertions in a national education journal.
To counter such hyperbole, I noted many scores are not at historic highs and general knowledge is still at low levels. I cited 17-year-olds' NAEP scores because they gauge the total K–12 experience and remain well below their 1970s levels in science and civics. In balance, I cited evidence showing schools are not in a general decline (see my critique of A Nation At Risk [Stedman and Smith 1983]).

Math Still Spells Trouble

Internationally, math remains a trouble spot. Baker (1993), for example, found that U.S. 8th graders learned only 40 percent of the items taught. Westbury did assess algebra, and our students did poorly. Recently, IAEP-2 showed the top half and top 20 percent of our 13-year-olds were well behind (National Center for Education Statistics 1993a). The United States trailed most countries in arithmetic, measurement, geometry, data analysis, and algebra. This is not just a minority student problem. In 1992, only 30 percent of white U.S. 8th graders reached the proficient level in math; 27 percent did not even make the basic level (National Center for Education Statistics 1993b).
Bracey's NAEP vs. IAEP-2 data are problematic (National Center for Education Statistics 1993a). He compared American 8th graders— half were 14–15 years old—to other nations' 13-year-olds. For the United States, he used 1992 NAEP scores, which were higher than our actual scores on IAEP-2. Even with these advantages, white 8th graders lagged a significant 6–8 scale points— .2–.25 standard deviation—and half were below that. These data hardly indicate most of our students are world-class in math.
The typical U.S. student scored only around Taiwan's and Korea's 25th percentile. Variability within nations, though important, should not be judged by two extreme points from Taiwan. Bracey side-stepped the performance of U.S. high school seniors, which was poor in math and science. Although our youngest students did well internationally in reading, NAEP shows our seniors still lack critical reading skills.

No Great Expectations

The problem is not “unreasonable standards” or “unrealistic notions of intellectual performance.” Most people expect seniors to be competent in 7th grade math and basic social studies information. As a former tutor, secondary school teacher, and district evaluator, I know these are reasonable, if minimal, expectations. We should aim higher—that is why school restructuring and authentic assessment are important.
I have argued all along that reform is needed for many reasons—cultural, political, humanistic—not just because achievement is low. Iowa's experience doesn't disprove my observation that learning and teaching to the test caused recent national gains. Second, my one sentence on competitiveness was hardly a “scare tactic.” I have consistently critiqued the education-economic productivity argument (Stedman and Kaestle 1991, Stedman and Smith 1983).
Third, strangely, Bracey criticizes me for overestimating demographic effects on the SAT, yet it was his position that the decline was entirely compositional. The College Board Advisory Panel based its conclusions on technical studies not conjecture; Researchers have conducted SAT regression analyses.
Finally, we have more than “anecdote and impression” that the system does not promote understanding, judgment, and curiosity. Thoughtful, well-executed studies by Michelle Fine, John Goodlad, Jeannie Oakes, and Ted Sizer have shown that the intellectual life of high schools is often poor, students are disengaged, and teachers' work often factory-like. We need fundamental reform.

Baker, D. P. (1993). “Compared to Japan, the U.S. Is a Low Achiever ... Really.” Educational Researcher 22, 3: 18–20.

Berliner, D. (1993). “Mythology and the American System of Education.” Phi Delta Kappan 74, 8: 632–640.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1993a). Education in States and Nations. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1993b). NAEP 1992 Mathematics Report Card for the Nation and the States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

Stedman, L. C., and C. F. Kaestle. (1991). “The Great Test Score Decline: A Closer Look.” In Literacy in the United States, edited by C. F. Kaestle, H. Damon-Moore, L. C. Stedman, K. Tinsley, and W. V. Trollinger. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Stedman, L. C., and M. Smith. (Fall 1983). “Recent Reform Proposals for American Education.” Contemporary Education Review: 85–104.

Lawrence C. Stedman has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 195020.jpg
Aiming for Higher Standards
Go To Publication