U.S. pupils trail world, report says School goals panel sounds warning

October 01, 1991|By Mary Ann Roser | Mary Ann Roser,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Sounding a "wake-up call" to the nation, a panel of governors and Bush administration officials delivered a grim education report yesterday that echoed a familiar theme: U.S. students are at the bottom of the class.

The National Education Goals Panel said U.S. students were at or near the bottom in math and science. In math, only 1 in 5 students in grades four, eight and 12 are performing as well as their counterparts in other countries.

Unlike previous surveys, this report did not rank students state by state. Instead, panel members said, the objective was to hold U.S. students to "world-class standards."

"What we hope to communicate in this report is that the performance gap is real; it is a threat to our future, and it cannot be attributed to others -- other students, other schools, other states," the report said.

Students were judged on what they should know to compete in && a global economy, but the standard by which they were judged was available only for mathematics. Standards for other subjects will be developed for future reports, designed to show annual progress on meeting an ambitious set of goals by the year 2000.

The goals were set by the nation's governors and President Bush after an education summit in 1989. If the goals were met, even the most disadvantaged children would come to school with the skills needed to learn, 90 percent of students would graduate from high school, students would be able to master "challenging" subjects, the United States would lead the world in math and science, illiteracy would be eradicated, and schools would be free of drugs and violence.

Some education specialists said these goals were not realistic at a time of tight budgets and piecemeal reforms in the states.

In 1991, only about 40 percent of 3- to 5-year-olds from families with incomes of $30,000 or less were enrolled in preschool, the report says.

The nation's overall graduation rate was 83 percent, only a 2-point improvement in 15 years. Whites had the highest rate, with 87 percent graduating, followed by 78 percent of blacks and 60 percent of Hispanics.

On judging academic performance, the report cites the students' dismal math performance on a standard determined by a panel of teachers and lay people.

The standard they used was challenged by some professional educators, including the American Federation of Teachers, who contended that the data were unreliable and could make students look worse than they really were.

To measure performance in other subjects, the panel used national instead of international standards. It found that 12th-graders had a basic knowledge of civics but that only 6 percent had detailed knowledge of government institutions.

Average reading scores for 13- and 17-year-olds showed little change from 1980 to 1990, and writing scores for fourth- and 11th-graders were relatively unchanged from 1984 to 1990.

There was some good news.

During the past five years, the number of Advanced Placement exams taken increased 51 percent, with rates of increase highest among minority students.

To measure progress toward becoming No. 1 in math and science, the report cited 1988 data in which U.S. 13-year-olds scored much lower in science than did students in South Korea, Spain and Britain. The United States did better than Ireland, the only other country involved. But in math, it did worse than all four nations.

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