In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued a scathing review of American education titled “A Nation at Risk.” Although the Commission did find some successes, the majority of the report focused on the failure of American education to prepare students for competing in a global market. Educational mediocrity, it claimed, caused lowered SAT (formerly the Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores, declining standards, grade inflation, poor performance in math and science, and functional illiteracy (reading and writing skills insufficient for daily living). The report also identified social promotion, which is the practice of promoting students who do not have basic skills to the next higher grade in order to preserve their self‐esteem by continuing on with their classmates, as a culprit. Much of the discussion surrounding the report focused upon the lower SAT scores and grade inflation, which is the practice of assigning higher grades to lesser skills in order to support a normal grade curve. Educators defended education by arguing that the lower test scores resulted from more students with a wider grade range and narrower course loads taking the exams.
The report recommended sweeping reforms, first calling for higher standards with more course work in English, math, science, social studies, and computer science. Next, it demanded a stop to social promotion. Finally, the report pointed to below‐average pay scales for teachers and recommended raising teacher salaries to attract more highly qualified teachers. In some cases, students entering teacher education programs were themselves the students with the lowest verbal and math scores.
Since the report, the United States has given increased funding and attention to education with mixed results. Many of the problems identified by the report continue. Social promotion continues because concern for the child's self‐esteem often outweighs concern about the need for basic skills, and because an overburdened system cannot withstand holding back large numbers of students. Many states and districts have implemented programs to raise scores, and, although SAT scores have risen some, critics charge that revisions to the exam, which made it easier, caused the rise. Some districts have tied teachers' and administrators' salaries to student performance with mixed results. Myriad other issues that confront educators before educators reach the classroom, such as lack of teaching resources and even fear of student violence, further complicate education reform.