An educator responds to the latest 'Coleman report'

Public schools fill a very special role in our nation. They serve the students of all of the people. Furthermore, they are serving them well. How does one determine the success of a school system or the achievement of students within those systems? Several ways exist, but each presents only a piece of the picture. We can say, however, that public schools are performing extremely well in these areas:

* National academic competition;

* Entrance into colleges and universities;

* College aptitude tests;

* Success as adults.

Public school students do extremely well in national academic competitions such as the annual Science Talent Search sponsored by the Westinghouse Corporation. During the last five years of this program, 92 percent of the 10 annual finalists were students in America's public schools.

A look at the National Merit Scholarship semifinalists also shows that public schools are providing excellent education. This test recognizes the very best students, one half of one percent of the total junior class. Of the 10 schools with the greatest number of National Merit Scholarship semifinalists in 1978, eight were public schools.

The colleges and universities of America depend on public school graduates. Last year, 86.2 percent of the entering freshman class nationwide were graduates of public schools; while 10.7 percent were graduates of private denominational schools, and 3.2 percent came from private nondenominational schools.

Over the last 10 years, the percentage of public school graduates entering colleges and universities has increased slightly.

Furthermore, America's most renowned colleges and universities count heavily upon public graduates as enrollees. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is "among the most selective in the country" in admissions, drew 77 percent of its 1978 freshman class from public schools.

When we look at people who have become America's leaders, we find that the vast majority are graduates of public high schools. Of the 14 people presently serving as members of the President's Cabinet, 86 percent graduated from public schools.

america's space future is largely in the hands of public school graduates. Fifty-six astronaut candidates have been selected since 1978 by NASA for the space shuttle project. Of these, two were educated outside the United States. Of the remaining 54 candidates, 96 percent are products of public schools.

Citizen frequently hear that schools are performing poorly because student Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores are declining. (The SAT is administered primarily to high school senors planning to enter college.) While the SAT scores have dropped over the past decade, scors have not droppedm on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), the shorter version of the SAT given to high school juniors planning to enroll in higher education. PSAT scores are used to determine the National Merit Scholarship Test semifinalists and finalists.

Why the difference in the PSAT scores and the scores earned in the SAT given just one year later? Obviously, students are not going to learn or unlearn sufficient material during their last year of high school to make such a considerable difference. There must be a change in the student population taking the two tests.

At least three specific considerations apply. First, a cadre of talented students graduate from high school after three or three-and-half years. Early graduation has become a popular option for some high school students, and that talented group is not in school as seniors to take the SAT.

Secondly, with the growing economic pressure upon families, a large number of talented students decide to attend a less expensive community college or state college or university, which do not require the SAT. Also, some evidence exists that fewer students are taking the SAT a second time, and the typical student raises a test score 15 points with a second try at the SAT. In summary, when we look at PSAT test results achieved by the more stable 11th-grade student population, little change exists in scores today and those of 20 years ago.

America's public school system performs a specific role in this country. Public schools have provided the foundation for our democratic form of government ever since Thomas Jefferson observed: "A nation which expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, expects what never will be." For a democracy to survive, it must have a citizenry of educated people, and our public schools are providing that, as well.

Options in education are important. They must be available to students and parents. But a strong public education system, since it is responsible for the majority of American youth, is crucial to the success of our country. Criticism of the public schools using incompleted data inappropriately applied misleads the public about the full contributions of the public schools

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