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Test Scores Contradict 'Recession' Claim

Schools: Students have shown slow improvement in two decades despite Bush's assertions, experts say.

September 27, 2000|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since the Reagan administration signaled national alarm about America's schoolchildren in a landmark report, reading test scores have stagnated while math scores have slowly crept up during the terms of each of the last three presidents.

This slow and uneven progress is disappointing, but leading education experts said the results don't support Texas Gov. George W. Bush's accusation that the Clinton administration has presided over an "educational recession."

The experts also said that another key assertion by Bush only filled in part of the picture: that the achievement gap between minorities and whites widened since Clinton took office nearly eight years ago.

The gap between whites and blacks began to grow significantly during President Bush's administration after nearly two decades of narrowing, national reading and math test scores show. That gap has continued to widen in math during the Clinton years and has remained about the same in reading.

"If we're going to play president blaming, this does not bode well for either side," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a Washington organization that studies student achievement.

One noted authority, from the National Center on Education and the Economy, said the performance of American students has generally improved over the last two decades--a statement supported by test data. But education levels have failed to keep pace with the growing demands of the modern high-tech economy.

Roughly half of the students who graduate from high school leave with an eighth-grade literacy level, said Marc Tucker, the center's president.

"It's not a case of having fallen from some earlier state of grace," Tucker said. "We were never in that state of grace. For that reason, I think 'recession' is exactly the wrong metaphor."

A Bush spokeswoman defended the governor's assertions, calling them an accurate reflection of achievement during the Clinton years.

"There's no reason to stand by and watch stagnation just because it started 20 or 30 years ago," said Mindy Tucker. "You can't turn a blind eye to this. When faced with stagnation or a widening of the achievement gap, they've done nothing."

Meanwhile, the Bush campaign released a new television ad Tuesday that reiterates Bush's mantra about the education recession. In the ad and on the stump, Bush has promised to reform the nation's schools by pressing tough new accountability and discipline measures. He also is promoting an initiative to make sure all children can read by third grade.

For his part, Vice President Al Gore is promising universal preschool, more school construction and modernization, more teachers to reduce class sizes and new testing of teachers.

Despite the promises each candidate is making, serious questions remain over how much influence either one would have over education from the Oval Office.

The president and the U.S. Department of Education play only limited roles in everything from textbooks to testing to teaching. Far greater powers rest with the nation's governors--31 of whom are Republicans--and local school boards. Cities and states raise the lion's share of money for schools through taxes.

"If you look at the broad sweep of educational performance trends and ask is this due to the federal government, I think the answer will be no in most cases," said Dan Koretz, a senior research scientist at the Rand Corp. think tank in Washington. "Federal policy will have an influence. But I think it will be unlikely to see a sharp upturn or downturn in scores primarily because of federal policy alone."

Virtually every state has launched initiatives over the last decade to reform education through new academic standards, tests and accountability measures. Most of that activity has occurred over the last five years.

Now, 49 states have standards for what students need to know in the core academic subjects, and 48 states test their students. More than half the states, including California, are developing high school exit exams.

"Rather than backing away from higher standards and accountability, it's just gaining momentum across the states," said Jennifer Vranek, director of benchmarking and state services for Achieve Inc., a consortium of state officials and business leaders who work for higher academic standards nationally. "We're seeing more and more activity, not less."

Those efforts have been prompted by poor showings on national and international tests--and the federal government's own recognition over the last two decades that American students do not measure up to their counterparts around the world. In 1983, a Reagan administration report titled "A Nation at Risk" detailed the failures of the nation's education system.

Texas is among the states that have been at the forefront of the reform movement--a fact that Bush has touted in his campaign for the White House. Texas is among the most effective states in helping students at all income levels learn, according to a recent national study.

But that same study, by the Rand Corp., said more resources--not necessarily the tough accountability measures pushed by Bush--make the biggest difference.

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