Fifty years ago this October, Americans were jolted by the news that Moscow, one year after drowning the Hungarian Revolution in blood, had put an 80-pound satellite into Earth orbit.
In December, the U.S. Navy tried to replicate the feat. Vanguard got four feet off the ground and exploded, incinerating its three-pound payload. America was humiliated. Khrushchev was Man of the Year. Some of us yet recall the Vanguard newsreels and the humiliating laughter.
Stunned, America went to work to improve education in math and science, and succeeded. The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores of high school seniors began to rise, reaching a high in 1964.
However, test scores for high school students have been falling now for 40 years. In 1984, the Reagan administration issued "A Nation at Risk," documenting the deterioration of American public education.
More trillions of dollars were thrown at the problem. And if one judged by the asserted toughening up of courses and rising grades of seniors, it appeared we had made marvelous progress. On March 4, The Washington Times reported:
"In 2005, 17 percent of graduates had completed a 'standard' curriculum, 41 percent completed a 'midlevel' curriculum, and 10 percent completed a 'rigorous' curriculum. Fifteen years earlier, the percentages were 9 percent (standard), 26 percent (midlevel) and 5 percent (rigorous). Grade point averages (GPA) increased, as well. The average overall GPA increased from 2.68 in 1990 to 2.98 (virtually a B level) in 2005.
However, it is all a giant fraud, exposed as such by the performances of high school seniors on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams known as the "nation's report card." An NAEP test of 12th-grade achievement was given to what The New York Times called a "representative sample of 21,000 high school seniors attending 900 public and private schools from January to March 2005."
What did the tests reveal?
-- Since 1990, the share of students lacking even basic reading skills has risen by a third, from 20 percent to 27 percent.
-- Only 35 percent of high school seniors have reached a "proficient" level in reading, down from 40 percent.
-- Only 16 percent of black and 20 percent of Hispanic students had reached a proficient level in reading.
-- Among high school seniors, only 29 percent of whites, 10 percent of Hispanic students and 6 percent of black students were proficient in math.
This is only the half of it. Among the kids whose test scores on reading and math were not factored in were the 25 percent of white students and 50 percent of black and Hispanic kids who had dropped out by senior year.