The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

A Summary of “The Manufactured Crisis”

on February 13, 2017

In today’s post I will summarize, as best I can, what is probably the most important information in the book, “The Manufactured Crisis” (TMC) by David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, that repudiates the assertions about the failure of American education in “A Nation at Risk” (ANAR).


 In the preface of TMC the authors explain their reasons for writing this book:

“In 1983 the Reagan White House began to make sweeping claims attacking the conduct and achievement of America’s public schools—claims that were contradicted by evidence we knew about. We thought at first this might have been a mistake, but these and related hostile and untrue claims were soon to be repeated by many leaders of the Reagan and Bush administrations. The claims were also embraced in many documents issued by industrialists and business leaders and were endlessly repeated and embroidered on by the press. And, as time passed even leading members of the education community—including a number of people whom we knew personally—began to state these lies as facts.”

Immediately afterward  the authors begin to offer evidence to refute the most significant ANAR charge which was: “Average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests is now lower than 26 years ago when Sputnik was launched.” They turn first to the student scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) between 1963 and 1975. Although the aggregate scores for those years did decrease markedly, the numbers and qualifications of the students taking the SAT were changing at the same time. Earlier, the applicants were mostly students with strong high school records, applying to the most highly respected colleges or universities. Later on, a larger proportion of students taking the SAT were those with mediocre high school records, hoping only to qualify for some kind of higher education.

To make the authors’ conclusion absolutely clear I offer their final statement about the changes in SAT scores:

“So, although critics have trumpeted the alarming news that aggregate national SAT scores fell during the late 1960s and the early 1970s, this decline indicates nothing about the performance of American schools. Rather, it signals that students from a broader range of backgrounds were getting interested in college, which should have been cause for celebration, not alarm.”

From there Berliner and Biddle go on to discuss another test, the American College Testing Program (ACT) that many high school seniors took instead of the SAT. Several education critics have claimed that this test demonstrated a serious decline in student performance, resulting from the inadequacy of their high school education.  But the TMC authors disagree, refusing to give any credibility to those test scores because their content was changed from year to year in order to connect with the changes in schools’ curricula. Their conclusion is that “the average ACT test scores for any given year should not be compared with those of other years because the tests they came from were measuring somewhat different things,”

The next test that the authors examine is The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly known as the “The nation’s report card.” That test was—and is still—given to randomly selected national samples of students of different ages  to measure their competency in math, science, reading, writing, geography, and computer skills. According to the authors,“In general, the NAEP tests have shown very little change over the past two decades… the average NAEP scores earned by students across the nation in reading and mathematics for various years between the early 1970s and late 1980s have hardly changed during that period.” They also report that the “NAEP data indicated that white students have recently held their own in mathematics and that black and Hispanic students have gained significantly.”

Although Berliner and Biddle also look at the data from other tests less widely taken by high school students, they find no evidence that their competence declined over the years cited by ANAR or in those years that followed.

Finally, to consolidate their conclusion that there had been no decline in the performance of students who had gone through the public school system, the authors  look at graduating college students who wanted to go on to professional training schools. To do so they examined the results of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), the Graduate Management Admissions Test, (GMAT), the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), and the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). In all of them they found that the test results improved or stayed stable over time

As I read the fully detailed reports on all these tests of student performance, I could not think of any other reliable source of information that might have been investigated. But even if one or two sources showing contrary evidence were overlooked, that would not be enough to persuade me that American education was failing back then or is doing so now.

Frankly, I cannot understand what motivated the production of “A Nation at Risk” and why so many politicians, citizens, and the national press accepted its claims so readily for so long without any evidence. More puzzling to me, however, is why  “No Child Left Behind” was passed by Congress years later and why the”Every Student Succeeds Act” was passed in 2015 after the clear and unquestionable failure of NCLB. My greatest concerns, however, are what comes next in the undeniable political efforts to destroy public education and what we, as citizens who believe that it is essential in a democracy, can do to save it.

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