THE school-reform push of the last decade has made a significant difference in what American children are studying, according to a report issued on June 7 by the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J.
Richard Coley, the report's author and a staffer with ETS's Policy Information Center, sums up his findings this way: ``There's a lot of good news, but still an awfully long way to go.'' The good news is that, on average, high school students in the United States are getting weightier academic fare than they were in the early 1980s, before the reform movement started.
The ETS report, titled ``What Americans Study: Revisited,'' updates a 1989 study. It finds, for instance, that by 1990 17 percent of high school students had completed the ``core curriculum'' established in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The ``core'' recommends four years of English, three of social studies, science, and math, two years of a foreign language, and a half-year of computer science. In 1982, by contrast, only 2 percent of high school graduates had finished this course of studies.
The national commission also put forward a ``minimum academic program,'' identical to the ``core'' but excluding foreign language and computer science. Forty percent of US students had completed that program by 1990, as opposed to 13 percent in 1982.
The ETS researchers found, too, that students generally are taking more math and science, and that participation in the advanced-placement programs, which allow high school pupils to take college-level courses, has grown substantially over the past decade. In 1983, 157,973 were taking part in AP programs; last year the number was 424,193.
Mr. Coley explains that transcripts showing course work completed by students around the country provided the raw material for the report. These show the title and general nature of courses, but don't say much about content. ``We really don't know what went on in the classroom,'' Coley admits.
He believes the emphasis, for researchers and reformers, now has to shift from the subject matter being taught to the content of courses. That means increased attention on setting national standards for educational achievement, a process already underway in many states and freshly fueled by the ``Goals 2000: Educate America Act'' signed this year by President Clinton.
Beyond the standards themselves will come tests to assess whether they are being met, says Tom Loveless, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who follows school-reform issues. As such tests are instituted, he says, school districts are apt to find that many kids will fail. ``What will they do then?'' he asks. ``Hold kids back? Hold schools more accountable?''
For the next five years, says Mr. Loveless, the Goals 2000 legislation bans any ``high stakes'' sanctions for failure to meet education standards, such as keeping students from graduation, preventing promotion to a higher grade, or withholding funding from schools.
THE great unknown, says Loveless, is how much the federal government, without spending a lot of money, will be able to influence local schools to set and begin enforcing solid academic standards during that period. The pessimistic view, he says, is that local districts won't be able to live with the failures likely under tougher standards and will ``lower the bar'' with a proliferation of courses that meet the standards only in name.
There are notes of optimism in what has already been accomplished. Coley's research indicates that the educational gap between boys and girls, and between different ethnic groups, grew narrower over the past 10 years. ``Girls are taking just about as much math and science as boys,'' he says. ``And there's a downward trend in remedial math among blacks and Hispanics.''
The ETS report makes it clear, however, that its findings can be looked at from different directions. ``There is also much room for improvement,'' says the report's introduction. ``Less than half of 1990 graduates took a `minimum academic program' and less than 1 in 5 completed a `core curriculum.' ''