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Remembering “A Nation At Risk” Part I

August 31, 2014

A recent blog post from Diane Ravitch described the huge impact “A Nation at Risk” had on the public when it was issued. Many of the commenters lamented the fact that the mainstream media ignored the Sandia report, released in the early 1990s, which contradicted virtually all of the findings of the “Nation at Risk” report.

I began my service as Superintendent of Schools in 1981 and can attest to the outsize impact of “A Nation at Risk”. When it was published, I recall receiving enough copies for me to distribute to my school board members and administrators and advised that additional copies would be available for free or at least at cost. Like many of my colleagues, we saw this report as a means of waking the public to the need to support their public schools and to show that OUR schools were not “at risk”. By the time I took over my second assignment as Superintendent in Exeter NH, in 1984 we began examining our standardized test scores to see how we might improve on them. My assistant and I worked with the representatives of the company that published the standardized tests used in NH at that time and found a way to use the item analyses to determine the areas of the curriculum that contributed to our failure to achieve scores in the 95th percentile instead of the 85th percentile.

At one point during my four years at Exeter we received a grant from an anonymous donor for $10,000 to institute a program for gifted and talented students. The grant DID have on condition: we had to hire Joseph Renzulli as a consultant. While I was unfamiliar with Renzulli’s work at the time, my assistant had worked with him in CT and enthusiastically endorsed his work. At our first meeting with him, he asked me what I hoped to accomplish by implementing the gifted and talented program. I responded that I wanted to increase our test scores from the 85th percentile to the 95th percentile. He asked me why and I was taken aback. After a moment’s hesitation I gave this very bad response: “Why… because 95 is bigger than 85”. What followed was my first lesson in the hollowness of standardized test scores.

Unfortunately, I would need to wait two decades to get to a district where STATE standardized test scores and AP results no longer mattered and witness the advent of high stakes testing that continues unabated to this day.

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