Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The Carter Years: Education Research and Testing
Shortly before it created the new federal Department of Education, Congress had authorized funding for a new Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI). The purpose of the OERI was to sponsor scholarly research on effective strategies for teaching and learning among diverse populations of students. Growing concern about low academic achievement levels in the late 1970s led to an increasing emphasis throughout the nation on standardized test results as the best way to measure both student progress and program effectiveness. At a time of economic strain, taxpayers sought "efficiency" in the use of every public dollar; they wanted concrete and visible "proof" that every penny invested in schools would yield a penny's worth of performance (the exact measurement of which was, of course, vague). The OERI aimed to measure the inputs and outputs of public schools throughout the country. Through its Education Resources Information Center (known as ERIC), the OERI was charged with supporting and disseminating new discoveries in pedagogy, curriculum, administration, and all other aspects of schooling.
Much of the attention fixed on student achievement in the late 1970s derived from media hype over the so-called SAT Test Score Decline. In 1977, a panel of experts from the College Board announced a steady drop in SAT scores in the previous fourteen years. Between 1963 and 1977, average mathematics scores had fallen 32 points; average verbal scores had fallen 49 points (that is, half a standard deviation). The College Board panel attributed these declines to its perception that more minority (and female) students were taking the SAT, but others reached different conclusions. Some observed that, following the rapid growth of special-compensatory services in the 1960s, the average dropout rate in the nation's high schools had begun to decline, and more low-achieving students had remained in school. Over time, greater attention to compensatory, bilingual, and special education-while ostensibly geared toward basic skills for at-risk students-had pulled attention (and resources) away from high-achieving, college-bound students, with the result that fewer students now posted high scores on the SAT. This analysis led many in state departments of education to assert that more work was needed in the area of "basic skills competency"-that is, demonstrable proficiency in the areas of reading and mathematics.