Testing-service head calls for change at school level

November 15, 1990|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- Twenty years of fanfare and fervor over education reform have produced only modest improvements in American schooling, the president of the Educational Testing Service said yesterday.

The back-to-basics movement of the 1970s elevated the performance of youngsters at the bottom somewhat, Gregory R. Anrig, president of the non-profit corporation that produces the Scholastic Aptitude Test, said at a news conference yesterday. But the exhortations to excellence of the 1980s that resulted in more stringent graduation requirements in many states have done little to improve the performance of capable students, he said.

"There's no reason our 13-year-olds can't do as well as Korean 13-year-olds, but they're not," Mr. Anrig said.

Unless teachers rather than politicians take charge of reform, U.S. schools will keep turning out students who can't keep up with the rest of the world, he said.

As a result of the education summit President Bush called a year ago, the nation's governors came up with a set of education goals, including putting American students in first place globally in math and science by 2000.

"We're not going to get there," Mr. Anrig said. "I can tell you that right now."

The statistics, analyzed in a report the service issued yesterday, have become depressingly familiar.

There were no improvements in reading, writing and civics during the 1980s, while writing declined among eighth-graders. At the same time, American children began watching more television than ever. In 1982, 55 percent of 13-year-olds watched three or more hours of television a day. By 1988, 71 percent were doing so.

The good news was that black 17-year-olds narrowed the gap between themselves and white students in reading, science and math, and that the dropout rate did not increase despite fears it would do so as graduation requirements were raised. However, the gap widened between the percentage of white high school graduates who enroll in college and blacks who do so.

The solution to lagging performance, said Mr. Anrig, who runs the nation's largest and most powerful testing organization, is not more testing. He is particularly opposed to a national test being studied by the President's Education Policy Advisory Committee. Such a test would be given to all students in grades four, eight and 12 as a way of assessing the progress of schools and making them more accountable.

(Earlier yesterday, a Gallup Poll was released reporting that 73 percent of a group of top teachers surveyed said they felt pressured to spend more time preparing students for tests and that 57 percent said classroom subjects were determined by what is covered on the tests.)

A national test, Mr. Anrig said, would be another example of top-down change at a time when bottom-up change is required. "The teacher has got to be the center of reform in the 1990s," he said. "Now we have to make sure changes begin in the classroom."

During the 1980s, 42 states raised high school graduation requirements, 47 adopted statewide testing programs and 39 required teacher testing. Maryland took part in all these trends, but many basic problems remained unresolved -- including lagging achievement and a dropout rate of nearly 50 percent in Baltimore schools. Such results, Mr. Anrig said, are the inevitable result of reforms imposed from without rather than from within.

Maryland is wrestling with a new approach to administering education in which state officials would become helpers -- assisting schools in improvement efforts -- rather than regulators. The state is developing tests that would measure achievement more accurately. And it has set new performance standards: A district-by-district report card comparing school systems on basic-skills tests, student attendance and other areas is to be issued Monday.

Mr. Anrig said he expects the code word of the 1990s to be "restructuring" -- giving teachers authority over decisions made in their schools and classrooms.

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