WASHINGTON -- Students are taking more advanced math and science classes, and graduation requirements have been increased, in the 20 years since a commission found the United States to be "A Nation at Risk" because of educational mediocrity.
Other results are mixed.
"Have we made progress? The answer is yes," said Milton Goldberg, who directed the federal commission that produced the landmark "A Nation at Risk" report. "Have we accomplished the mandate? The answer is no."
The ideas behind the report sounded more basic than bold: make sure high school students graduate with core skills they will need in life. Among them: being able to write a well-organized paper, grasp the scientific method and understand democratic government.
The bold part came in the warning: The country was compromising its future with a curriculum that had no central purpose.
What's happened since?
On average, students now graduate with the "New Basics" called for by the National Commission on Excellence in Education: at least four years of English, three years of math, science and social studies and half a year of computer science. The typical course load in all five categories has increased steadily since 1983 as states have increased diploma requirements and testing.
Also, the share of students taking advanced math rose from 26 percent to 41 percent since the report's release; in advanced science, it grew from 35 percent to 62 percent, says the National Center for Education Statistics.
But achievement has been inconsistent.
Math scores on the SAT are at the highest level in 32 years, yet scores for the reading, writing and grammar portions of the college-entrance exam have been flat.
Among 17-year-olds, reading scores have not improved over the past two decades, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In math and science, improvement has been modest, and bigger strides came in the 1980s than the 1990s.
Even measuring progress is complicated by a lack of uniform measures. The SAT, for example, tracks mainly college-bound students. The NAEP doesn't test every subject every year. States measure different data.
Before "A Nation at Risk," schools offered a potpourri of classes, "a quarter of this and a quarter of that," said Mary McCorkle, who taught for 23 years at Mobridge High School in South Dakota. "After that report, schools added classes, deleted classes -- they better prepared students for college and what the world expected."
In McCorkle's small district of 680 students, more requirements came with a cost. Many courses are offered only once a day, so students began giving up choir or Spanish to take more science or math. Increased exposure to basics often came in lower-level courses.
The report wanted students to take more rigorous courses, not just more courses. However, 43 percent of students who completed the New Basics in 1998 completed no advanced math.
Not to be lost is the broader impact of "A Nation at Risk," Goldberg said. Education became a priority for governors. The notion of national education goals was accepted. The link between the strength of local education and the value of a community became apparent, he said.
"A Nation at Risk" led to more opportunities for high schoolers, said Denee Mattioli, a curriculum professor at East Tennessee State University and former classroom teacher of 17 years. But there's been a catch, she said: assessments that end up punishing schools with the fewest resources.
President Bush and Congress have ordered states to provide more testing, better teachers, higher performance and more information to parents.
Higher expectations must come with more federal support, said Tony Harduar, a 26-year educator and principal of Central Elementary in Ferndale, Wash. Dollars determine whether migrant students get translators, whether rookie teachers become highly qualified, he said.
A task force at Stanford University's Hoover Institution says the outlook for education is "unmistakably grim." Only radical change -- school choice, punishments and rewards, clear information for parents -- will lead to better results, the group's study says.
"It's really extraordinary that this part of our society is so stagnant," said Paul Peterson, a professor of government at Harvard University and senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution.
Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, said reform should focus on class size, teacher training and parental involvement.
"I'd say we're a nation that has recognized the risk," Goldberg said, "and is putting in place ways of addressing it."
On the Net: "A Nation at Risk": www.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/