State of U.S. Schools

Sandia Study Challenges Misconceptions

By Kendrick Frazier

If you think that:

  • documented declines in SAT scores mean American secondary school students are doing worse,
  • American schools are among the worst in the world,
  • students are dropping out of school at increasingly alarming rates,
  • American schools are graduating fewer and fewer technically trained students, then you might want to reconsider those assumptions in view of an independent systems study of education in America that after three years has finally seen the light of day and been published.1

During those three years, photocopied summaries of the study were circulating like an underground samizdat throughout the educational community. The study, titled “Perspectives on Education in America,” was carried out by three scientists at Sandia National Laboratories, Robert M. Huelskamp, Charles C. Carson, and Thomas

D. Woodall. It provoked an immediate debate on the status of education. Scores of newspaper columns and editorials have been written about it. Some educators and media commentators have accused government agencies in Washington of delaying or even suppressing the document. The agencies said the report had been undergoing peer review. (It did undergo additional peer review at that point). Sandia has received nearly a thousand requests for the report. School board members, teachers, and administrators have spoken positively about it at meetings. Many have taken heart from its fresh analyses of the facts and its sometimes surprising conclusions.

Almost all educators familiar with the study have taken the results as confirmation that things aren’t as bad as they have often, for whatever reason, been painted. Some Bush Administration officials, on the other hand, argued publicly with the interpretations and worried that the results might lead to unwarranted complacency. For nearly two years, the authors weren’t in a position to respond or even talk about their study.

Nevertheless they adamantly oppose any suggestion that the study is defending the status quo rather than seeking a fundamental understanding of the facts. Some people felt the culprit in the delays was a former federal administration that, for its own reasons, seemed to want to present public schools in as bad a light as possible. (Some of the best reports on these aspects of the controversy have been written by Julie A. Miller of Education Week, for example, May 26, 1993, September 23, 1992, and October 9, 1991.) For its part, Sandia had no axe to grind; it just wanted to present the findings. It certainly wanted no part of any controversy, and this one has caused it considerable pain.

How did the whole thing come about?

What about the results is so surprising to those who have been critical of the state of American education?

Sandia National Laboratories, headquartered in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is one of the nation’s largest scientific and engineering laboratories. Operated for the U.S. Department of Energy, it conducts scientific research for the U.S. government. It has world expertise in dozens of areas of science and engineering. It increasingly has broad interaction with U.S. industry aimed at strengthening technologies critical to the country’s future. As a result of all this, Sandia, the Perspectives analysts note, has a “keen interest” in the education system that develops future scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

When the Bush Administration in 1989 set forth its National Education Goals and then-Secretary of Energy James Watkins challenged the national laboratories to become more involved in education, Sandia took up the call.

The New Initiatives Department of Sandia’s Strategic Studies Center undertook a wide-ranging analysis of secondary-school education systems. The purpose was to see how Sandia might best direct its efforts. The three Sandia systems analysts examined the areas of historical performance, including dropout-retention rates, standardized tests, expenditures, international comparisons, and the status of educators; and of future requirements, including workforce skills, changing demographics, and education goals. To their surprise, on nearly every measure they found steady or slightly improving trends.

The participants told a Congressional subcommittee on July 18, 1991: “The study is producing interesting results. It has greatly changed Sandia’s initial perceptions in several of the areas and reinforced others. Overall it provides an objective “outsider” perspective on the status of education in the United States.”

Some of the results may be of particular interest to our readers.

Perhaps the most surprising finding involves standardized tests. The analysts discovered that the much-publicized “decline” in average SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores among U.S. college-bound high school students misrepresents the true story about student SAT performance. Average SAT scores have declined (about 5%) over the past 20 years. The Sandia analysts, however, found that while it is true that average SAT scores have been declining, the reason for the decline is not decreasing student performance. Following some declines in the 1970s, every minority subpopulation taking the SAT showed general improvement in its average score during the 1980s. At the same time, scores by whites remained stable.

“This raises an interesting question,” they say. “If every ethnic or racial population has maintained or generally improved its average SAT score in recent years, how can the combined average decline during that same interval?

“We found that the decline arises from the fact that more students in the bottom half of the class are taking the SAT today than in years past. Since 1971, the median test-taker has dropped from the 79th percentile in class rank to the 73rd percentile. Additionally, every ethnic group taking the test is performing as well or better today than it did 15 years ago. More people in America are aspiring to achieve a college education than ever before, and the national SAT average is lowered as more students in the third and fourth quartiles of their high school classes take the test.

“This phenomenon, known as Simpson’s paradox, shows that an average can change in a direction opposite from all subgroups if the proportion of the total represented by the subgroups changes.”

(In an interview in the April Omni, mathematics professor and Innumeracy author John Allen Paulos cited this same SAT score information as an example of how readily even well-educated people can be fooled by counterintuitive data. In Innumeracy(p. 41), he gives a somewhat similar example of how a baseball player can lead the league in hitting for both halves of the season yet come in second for the whole season.)

The Sandia analysts found that if SAT scores are controlled for class rank and gender, so that the population of students taking the test matches that of the 1975 test-takers, the average performance of these “traditional” test-takers on the SAT has actually improved by more than 30 points. (They quickly note that this improved score may be misleading too, however, as better test preparation and other non-aptitude

factors may contribute to it.) The point, say the Sandia analysts, is that “student performance on the SAT is far too complex to be discussed in terms of decline or improvements in average scores.”

Another indicator of education achievement has been the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The Sandia analysts found that the fraction of students scoring at or above a given level has generally remained steady or has increased for all age groups and subject areas. “Although the gains have been modest at best, the national data on student performance do not indicate significant declines in any area.”

They hasten to add that they are not implying that the performance levels are adequate for today’s or tomorrow’s society, only that according to the NAEP assessment, student performance is not in decline.

Another key area is dropout assessment. “Our investigation shows that America’s “on-time” high school graduation rate has been steady for over 20 years at roughly 75% to 80%. However, some students require more than four years to complete high school, and many dropouts avail themselves of opportunities to reenter (GED, night school, etc.), resulting in an overall high school completion rate for young adults of over 85%. This rate is improving and is among the best in the world” (emphasis added).

Gross numbers can mask underlying problems, however. The Sandia analysts found that the “fine structure” indicates that the most significant dropout problems are among minority youth and students in urban schools. While nearly 80% of white students complete high school on time, and 88% do so by age 25, minorities do not fare as well.

One encouraging trend is that, with the exception of Hispanics, dropout rates are declining for all ethnicities and community types. One interesting finding is that the lowest dropout rate by far of any such group is among suburban blacks. Suburban blacks drop out at a much lower rate than even suburban whites (6.8% compared with 11.8%). The high Hispanic dropout rate is troubling. But the study says recent immigration of Hispanics, many of whom come into the U.S. school system with inadequate background to succeed, “is significantly inflating dropout figures for the Hispanic population.” This doesn’t mean there isn’t a serious problem; but it does help point out more precisely where attention must be focused to try to solve it.

On another issue, funding, the analysts found that almost all of the increase in total average expenditures for secondary and elementary education in the 1980s has gone for special education and for fixed expenses (retirement, social security taxes, and insurance). Expenditures for regular education have remained constant. Special education students now account for 11% of all students (up from 8% in 1977), and they require more than twice the expenditure per pupil as regular students.

Some other findings:

  • About three in five (57%) U.S. youths attempt postsecondary studies. This is roughly the high-school graduation rate of the early 1950s. Moreover, they say, this rate is about twice that of Japanese students.
  • Approximately one in four persons in the 25- to 29-year old age group has completed at least a four-year college degree. This rate is nearly the same as the

U.S. high school graduation rate of 1930.

  • The percentage of 22-year-olds obtain- ing bachelor’s degrees in the natural sciences and engineering was rather stable from 1960 to 1980, at nearly 4%. The 1980s data indicate that youth today are choosing science and engineering degrees at a much higher rate than their peers in the 1960s.
  • From 1977 to 1987, the total number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to U.S. citizens in math, computer science, physical science, and engineering rose more than 75%, from roughly 99,000 in 1977 to 155,000 in 1987. (The increase among males was 70%; among females, 200%.) “As a national laboratory, we were particularly interested in technical-degree attainment. To our surprise, we found that about 200,000 U.S. students earn technical bachelor’s degrees each year, up significantly from 20 years ago, but representing a fairly steady rate of 4-5% of U.S. youth getting degrees in natural science and engineering.”

On international comparisons:

  • “We found little credible data on international comparisons of education.” Differences in educational goals, philosophy, and culture make meaningful comparisons very difficult. In the U.S. the democratic value of “education for all” is a goal; in other countries there may be much more “weeding out” at earlier ages. “Based on the sparse data available …, average U.S. student performance continues to be low in both math and science, compared to other participants. The major differences in education systems and cultures across countries diminish the value of these single-point comparisons.”
  • “Other international indicators of education-system performance reflect well on the U.S. Only Belgium and Finland exceed the U.S. in the percentage of 17-year-olds enrolled in school.”
  • “The U.S. continues to lead the world in the percentage of young people obtaining bachelor’s degrees and in the percentage of degrees obtained by women and minorities. This is true for both technical and nontechnical degrees. The U.S. also has the most balanced male/female ratio for both technical and nontechnical degrees.” In the United States, in fact, women now earn more bachelor’s degrees than men do, and this trend could soon extend to graduate degrees.
  • “Our comparison of technical workforces reflected well on the U.S. education system. Although the United States lags behind other countries in certain specialties (such as industrial engineering), the overall technical and nontechnical degree attainment by the workforce and population as a whole is unparalleled in the world.”

The Sandians conclude by identifying five primary challenges facing education today:

  • Forming a national consensus and finding leadership in educational improvement (“extremely difficult” because education “has so many stakeholders”).
  • Improving the performance of minority and urban students.
  • Adjusting to demographic changes and immigration.
  • Improving the status of elementary and secondary educators: “Much of the blame for problems in education, real and imagined, has been placed on local teachers and administrators. This has resulted in feelings of low self-esteem and bitterness…”.
  • Upgrading the quality of educational data: “The available data … are often used by decision makers in unintended, and sometimes inappropriate, applications. The use of inappropriate, simplistic, or highly aggregated data will most likely result in poorly focused actions, with disappointing outcomes.” The report, while emphasizing that the U.S. education system faces serious challenges, criticizes “counterproductive rhetoric” based on simplistic data and anecdotes. “Much of this rhetoric is a distraction that diverts the nation’s focus away from real [education] problems.”