WASHINGTON -- The performance of most American elementary and high school students "is low and not improving" and most of them demonstrate an inability to think through problems on their own, according to a national "report card" issued yesterday by the Department of Education.
The study, analyzing the achievement of children in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades, was termed "a compendium of disappointment" by Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos, who said that parents must give more assistance to teachers to meet the "daunting challenge."
"Many parents and teachers have failed to insist that youngsters do some of the fundamental things that we know promote education," Mr. Cavazos told a news briefing. The report said that children should spend more time reading at home or being read to by their parents and less time watching television.
The "report card," based mainly on assessments conducted among students in 1988, with some data from 1986, is the latest in a 20-year series produced by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a congressionally mandated project within the Department of Education.
The picture is about the same as it was 20 years ago, the study said, with 17-year-olds registering "only modest performance" in reading, mathematics, science, history and civics. The vast majority have only "rudimentary interpretive skills." Only 5 percent to 8 percent of all students "demonstrate those skills we usually associate with the ability to function in more demanding jobs in the workplace or the capability to do college work," the report said.
The brightest finding was that the achievement of minority students has improved over the years, with the greatest gains registered in reading.
"These findings reflect, at least in part, the dramatic gains in [reading] performance made by black 17-year-olds," the study said. It explained that this achievement parallels a decline in the dropout rate among black teen-agers since 1970.
However, it added:
"Sadly the gaps between minority and white students are still large and the performance of white students has remained stagnant over nearly two decades."
Summarizing the achievement levels by subject matter for most students at public and private schools, the "report card" found that:
* Most students get the gist of material that they read but they do not read analytically or do well on challenging reading assignments.
* Few students write well enough to accomplish the purposes of different writing assignments; most do not communicate effectively.
* The grasp of basic arithmetic and beginning problem-solving is far from universal among elementary and junior high students. By the time most approach high school graduation, half cannot handle moderately challenging material.
* Most students are familiar with the major events that shaped American history but do not appear to understand the significance of those events or how they are linked.