Measuring educational success Debate: While critics maintain that education in America is on a slide, the quality of schools and educational standards vary widely. And overall, U.S. students have shown improvement in recent years.

Sun Journal

April 06, 1997|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF Sun research librarian Robert Schrott contributed to this article.

Quick. Other than cloning sheep, are the Scots dominating scientific exploration? Are the French defining the future of computers? Do the Japanese surpass all others in patents?

In order, the answers are: No, no, and not really.

But recent speeches by civic leaders suggest otherwise, warning of the decline of U.S. education. The national economy will collapse, many U.S. politicians, corporate executives and leaders of teachers' unions say, unless the country greatly improves the education it offers.

This effort has generated a debate that ultimately hinges on how one should judge a nation's educational attainment. Is it through standardized tests or other kind of examinations? Or through commercial measures, such as the awarding of new patents or the creation of high-tech companies?

The quality of education offered in the United States varies greatly from district to district. In Baltimore City public schools, for example, about 60 percent of students entering ninth grade do not graduate from high school. In Howard County public schools, less than 6 percent drop out over the four years of high school. Such extremes are the norm for major U.S. cities and their suburbs.

Overall, U.S. students earn mixed marks for their efforts and have shown improvement in recent years -- results that contradict the widely held belief of horrific decline.

"There was a lot of rhetoric that said the United States was the worst in the world" in education, says Boston College professor Albert Beaton, director of an exhaustive international comparison schooling. "That isn't true. It is not good enough, but it is in the same ballpark as our trading partners."

A few points to consider:

Standardized test scores for U.S. students have generally risen, not declined, even as the number and proportion of students taking the tests has increased.

Between 1980 and 1994, Scholastic Assessment Test scores for blacks, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans and American Indians all rose significantly. Scores held relatively steady for whites. But because of demographic changes and greater educational opportunities for minority students, the overall SAT scores have risen only slightly. The percent of U.S. high school students taking the SAT increased from 32.6 percent to 41.8 percent in that time.

The 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a survey conducted by the U.S. Education Department, found improvement in math scores for students in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades, but from fairly unimpressive levels.

A significantly higher percentage of U.S. students now go to college than 25 years ago, and a far higher proportion of Americans earn a college degree than do people in any other industrialized country.

College attendance increased for blacks, whites, lower-income, middle-class, the affluent -- almost every category of student.

But U.S. students are often admitted to college with significantly less academic preparation than their peers abroad.

Extensive surveys by the American Federation of Teachers compared the educational attainment of U.S. students with counterparts in Japan, Germany, Scotland and France. While comparisons are not exact, high school students in other countries -- even students headed for vocational training -- were generally found to be far better prepared in subjects such as chemistry, math and biology, and at a younger age.

"There are too many students who are not prepared academically when they graduate high school to get high-paying, high-skilled jobs or to succeed in college," says Matt Gandal, assistant director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). "I don't mean to get into college. I mean to graduate -- in four years, with a degree, without having to take remedial courses."

Some commentators maintain that the failings of the U.S. educational system are redeemed by the intellectual vibrance of immigrants. "America is the global technology and economic leader in spite of, not because of, any properties of the American gene pool or dominant culture," George Gilder wrote in 1995 in the Wall Street Journal. "America prevails only because it offers the freedom of enterprise and innovation to people from around the world."

Other scholars, such as Arizona State University professor David Berliner, argue that the American educational system is performing pretty well, aside from some urban schools overwhelmed by social difficulties such as drugs and crime. Given that it maintains a diverse society and prizes individualism, Berliner says, the country has an educational system that is not doing so poorly.

There are many measures that support him. The United States still does relatively well in winning Nobel laureates and securing new patents. It retains the highest manufacturing productivity and highest level of per capita gross domestic product. And, says Berliner, the United States is still the undisputed leader in banking, telecommunications, transportation and agriculture.

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