Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The Reagan Years: A Nation at Risk
Reagan's plan to "devolve" decision-making authority to the state and local level did not prevent his administration from criticizing the work that state and local officials were doing. In 1983, a year after the de-regulation and de-funding of education programs took effect under the ECIA, the administration issued a major-and extremely critical-report on the state of American education. Coordinated by federal commissioner Terrel Bell, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform used standardized test scores to paint a bleak picture of performance levels in the schools: "Average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests is now lower than 26 years ago when Sputnik was launched," the report claimed. "The College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs) demonstrate a virtually unbroken decline from 1963 to 1980. Average verbal scores fell over 50 points, and average mathematics scores dropped nearly 40 points." The report suggested that public schools had prioritized access over achievement (equity over excellence) and had, in the process, shortchanged the very students who most needed high academic standards.
Calling for a renewed commitment to schools "of high quality throughout the length and breadth of our land," A Nation at Risk also called for a nationwide system of standardized tests. "Standardized tests of achievement should be administered at major transition points from one level of schooling to another, and particularly from high school to college," it noted. "These tests should be administered as part of a nationwide (but not federal) system of state and local standardized tests." This call for a nationwide system of tests marked a new era in federal educational policy, an era in which equal educational opportunities would be measured not so much in terms of financial aid, special programs, or even racial desegregation but, rather, in terms of standardized tests. This emphasis on standardized tests derived, in part, from a sense that the United States was losing its edge in vigorous economic competition with other industrialized countries, especially Japan. The Council of Chief State School Officers had represented the United States in several international forums in the early 1980s and had argued that America's poor showing in international assessment comparisons indicated a need for federal action in the schools.