“A Nation at Risk” was published in 1983. It launched the false narrative that American public schools were failing. The nation was in recession, and the authors of the report blamed the schools. When the economy improved, no one said, “Oops, we were wrong about the schools.”

In this article, James Harvey and David Berliner reflect on what the report said, and what needs to change to create real reform.

Although there is powerful evidence of significant improvement in American schools since 1971, as Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s first secretary of education, recently noted, “A Nation at Risk” itself ignored that evidence in favor of launching what turned into a “shock and awe” campaign that promoted a consistent narrative of school failure.

Part of the shock and awe campaign used the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  With the encouragement of Secretary Bennett and his allies, this excellent assessment was diverted from its original purpose of measuring what students at various grade levels actually know to a new goal: judging what students at various grade levels should know.

Adding to the confusion, NAEP’s governing body, the National Assessment Governing Board, adopted three vague terms to define performance benchmarks: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. Almost nobody understands what these terms mean. Analysts, journalists, and state officials use the term “proficient” as the barometer of success despite the fact that the government has consistently maintained that what most people would consider to be proficient performance would not meet NAEP’s definition of proficiency.

So we are told every few years that only about a third of our students are “proficient” in reading or mathematics under NAEP’s benchmarks as though that were information of great value. Yet it is clear from recent research published by the National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League (“How High the Bar?”) that the vast majority of students in most nations cannot clear the NAEP bar of “proficiency.”

Indeed, government officials acknowledge that to understand how many students in the United States are performing at grade level, the appropriate benchmark to examine is “basic,” not “proficient.“

What to Do?

Nobody should think for a minute that there aren’t very real problems with learning in America.  There’s a lot to be done.  But we’re not going to solve our school problems by exaggerating them or by misleading the public about school quality.

It is simply not true that American schools are failing 60 percent or more of their students, as NAEP’s proficient benchmark suggests. NAEP’s data indicate that nearly 70 percent of fourth graders are performing on grade level in reading, with 80 percent performing on grade level in mathematics. For 8th graders, the rates are 76 and 70 percent, respectively. While it would be gratifying to see higher numbers, these results are a much better guide to action than the deceptive picture of failure painted by the misleading term “proficient.”

“How High the Bar?” recommends that NAEP adopt benchmarks used by international education assessments, such as low, intermediate, high, and advanced. These terms provide a much more neutral and accurate take on student achievement.

It’s time also that we put an end to educational policy-making grounded in testing and tax cuts. As the recent wave of statewide protests across the nation indicates, educators are tired of standing by, their dignity under assault while their incomes stagnate and books and buildings fall apart.

Of course we should build more flexibility into the system, along with more variety and greater responsiveness to student and parent preferences.

Finally, we should go back to some of the advice the excellence commission received during its hearings but tossed aside in developing its report.  Oddly, President George H.W. Bush adopted some of these ideas in his “America 2000” program. Make sure all infants have a decent start in life so that they’re “ready” when school begins.  Worry about the 80 percent of their waking hours that students spend outside the school walls.  Provide adequate health care for children and a living wage for working parents, along with affordable day-care.

We can’t afford these things? Nonsense!  The United States is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. It can certainly provide its citizens with the basics that other nations provide to theirs.