'Report Card' Gives Schools a Poor Grade : Education: Students' performance is "low and not improving," annual federal report says. But black reading levels are up; dropout rate down.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The performance of most American elementary and high school students is "low and not improving," and most of them demonstrate an inability to think through problems on their own, according to a Department of Education "report card" issued Wednesday.

Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos called the analysis of achievement in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades "a compendium of disappointment." He said that, to meet the "daunting challenge," parents must give more assistance to teachers.

"Many parents and teachers have failed to insist that youngsters do some of the fundamental things that we know promote education," Cavazos told reporters. The report said children should spend more time reading at home or being read to by a parent and less time watching television.

The "report card"--based mainly on assessments conducted among students in 1988, with some data from 1986--is the latest in a 20-year-old series of reports produced annually by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a congressionally mandated project within the Education Department.

The picture is about the same as it was 20 years ago, the report said, with 17-year-olds registering "only modest performance" in reading, mathematics, science, history and civics. The vast majority, it said, have only "rudimentary interpretive skills," and only 5% to 8% of all students "demonstrate those skills we usually associate with the ability to function in more demanding jobs in the workplace or the capability to do college work."

The study's conclusion is "another indication that we have a national educational disaster on our hands," said Albert Shanker, president of the 750,000-member American Federation of Teachers.

"Only 3% to 6% of our high school graduates are able to do college work," Shanker said. He added that "95% of our college students are getting the high school and junior high school education they should have gotten earlier."

The brightest finding was that achievement levels among minority students have risen over the years, with the greatest gains seen in reading.

"These findings reflect, at least in part, the dramatic gains in (reading) performance made by black 17-year-olds," the report said. It explained that this achievement has paralleled a decline in the dropout rate among black teen-agers since 1970.

It added, however:

"Sadly, the gaps between minority and white students are still large, and the performance of white students has remained stagnant over nearly two decades."

The chairman of the National Assessment governing board, which oversees the measurements, said that too many mothers and fathers are unaware of their children's academic weaknesses.

"This data ought to be a cold shower for America, but it seems everyone is walking around with their own umbrella," said Chester Finn Jr., the board chairman.

In summarizing the achievement levels, by subject matter, for most students at public and private schools, the "report card" found that:

--Most students get the gist of material they read, but they do not read analytically or do well on challenging reading assignments.

--Few students write well enough to accomplish the purposes of various writing assignments; most simply do not communicate effectively.

--The grasp of basic arithmetic and beginning problem-solving is far from universal among elementary and junior high students. By the time most students approach high school graduation, half of them cannot handle moderately challenging material.

--Only a small proportion of students appear to develop the specialized knowledge needed to address science-based problems; the pattern of falling behind begins in elementary school.

--Most students are familiar with the major events of American history but do not appear to understand the significance of those events or how they were related.

--Most students demonstrate inadequate understanding of the U.S. Constitution, its Bill of Rights and the American system of government.

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