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Report Card Shows US Schools Lagging

Educators doubt deadline for achieving goals can be met

THE year 2000 marches closer as the United States strives to meet six ambitious education goals by that deadline.

In releasing its second annual report card yesterday, the National Education Goals Panel made it clear that American schools have a long way to go to meet goals set by the state governors and President Bush at a 1989 education summit.

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The report card "is a reaffirmation of where we are.... We are not doing as well as we should," says Gov. Roy Romer (D) of Colorado, who is a member of the bipartisan panel. The group includes seven governors, two members of the Bush administration, and four members of Congress.

This year's report card provides not only a state-by-state progress report but also puts US educational performance in an international context. In nearly all areas, US education standards need to be strengthened, the report concludes.

"We've not had the bar high enough," says Gov. Benjamin Nelson (D) of Nebraska, who is the new chairman of the goals panel. "We've been measuring ourselves against one another, Nebraska against South Carolina, not against Taiwan, not against the European countries."

As was the case last year, reliable and uniform data are still not available for several of the goals. "There's a dearth of data both domestically and internationally," says Chester Finn, a former assistant secretary of education. "And that's been the case for decades. It's slowly improving, but we're still severely handicapped by the absence of necessary numbers."

The battle for improving education through the goals is being waged on two fronts. The goals panel is working to obtain accurate comparison data while also pushing for improved performance.

Some educators are concerned about the balance between these two efforts. "There's been too much emphasis on identifying problems that have already been documented," said Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association, in a statement.

"At this rate, we don't stand a chance of meeting the goals by the year 2000. The clock is ticking while the administration is squandering precious time," he said.

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Simply defining terms has been an arduous process. Some definitions remain unclear. For example, the report notes that there is still no comprehensive definition for the mandate to provide "disciplined environments conducive to learning."

The panel's report card provides a wealth of information, although little of it is new. While it details progress on each goal, the report also outlines what "we still need to know" in all six areas:

* Goal 1 calls for all children to start school ready to learn. As was the case last year, there is no clear method of assessing progress toward this goal. But the panel is developing an Early Childhood Assessment System to collect information.

* Goal 2 mandates an increase in the high school graduation rate to at least 90 percent. The 1991 graduation rate for 19- and 20-year-olds and 23- to 24-year-olds is reported at 85 percent. Graduation rates for Hispanics still lag behind.

* Goal 3 calls for students in Grades 4, 8, and 12 to demonstrate competence in English, mathematics, science, history, and geography. Fewer than 1 in 5 students for each grade have reached the expected competency level in mathematics. This represents no progress over last year's report. However, the number of students taking Advanced Placement exams increased. "We're seeing better results on those AP tests," says Gov. Carroll Campbell Jr. (R) of South Carolina, outgoing panel chairman.

* Goal 4 challenges US students to become the first in the world in science and mathematics achievement by the end of the decade. This goal has been widely criticized as impossible to achieve, and this year's data reinforce the challenge: American students rank at or near the bottom in each of the math and science categories.

"We teach more hours of mathematics than some of the industrialized nations that are ahead of us, and yet our students don't do nearly so well," Governor Campbell says.

* Goal 5 envisions a society in which every American is functionally literate. The report offers no new information in this area but promises a comprehensive analysis next year, using data from the National Adult Literacy Survey.

* Goal 6 calls for all schools to be drug- and violence-free. Use of alcohol and other drugs in school has declined, but the percentage of high school seniors who report being threatened with a weapon at school increased from 13 percent to 16 percent.

How does all this reflect on the self-proclaimed "education president?"

"To set goals doesn't make anybody an education president," Governor Romer says. "It's what you do to help people achieve the goals."

He argues that 90 percent of action on education is at the state level. "So anybody who claims to be the education president is probably riding on the reputation of what the governors of states are doing."

"The basic systemic problems that public education faces have not been addressed by this president," Romer says. "So I don't think that this goals report really gives [Bush] anything to crow about."

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