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Posted at 05:13 PM ET, 09/14/2011

What the decline in SAT scores really means

Anybody paying attention to the course of modern school reform will not be very surprised by this news: Newly released SAT scores show that scores in reading, writing and even math are down over last year and have been declining for years. And critical reading scores are the lowest in 40 years.

After all, we’ve have a decade of standardized test-based school reform under the No Child Left Behind law that educators warned was narrowing curriculum and turning too many classrooms into test prep factories rather than places of real learning. Meanwhile, issues facing the rising number of English language learners and children living in poverty have been given short policy shrift.

According to the College Board, which owns the SAT and just released scores for 2011 test takers, average scores in critical reading were down over 2010 by three points; down by two points in writing and one point in math.

The picture looks even worse if you look back some more years: From 2006, the year after the SAT added a writing section to the verbal and math parts of the college entrance exam, scores for all test takers are down 6 points for reading; 4 points for math and 8 points for writing.

And the achievement gap between the top performers, Asians and whites, vs. blacks, Hispanics and other minorities, shows no sign of closing. (More about this later in the post.)

And the stubborn and disturbing achievement gap remains large. Average composite SAT scores for Asians, for example, have increased 40 points since 2006, while black students have seen a 19-point decline. Mexican or Mexican-Americans have had a 9-point drop; Puerto Ricans, a 17-point decline, and other Hispanics or Latinos, a 14-point decline, according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, known as FairTest, a non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating the misuse of tests.

The College Board’s release also noted that nearly 1.65 million students from the 2011 graduating class took the SAT, and that it represented the most diverse class in history. Forty-four percent were minority students, 36 percent were first-generation college goers and 27 percent do not speak English exclusively.

It further noted that “it is common for mean scores to decline slightly when the number of students taking an exam increases because more students of varied academic backgrounds are represented in the test-taking pool,” and it said that “there are more high-performing students among the class of 2011 than ever before.”

Who’s kidding whom? If there are more high-performing students, there must be more low-performing students, too, to bring down the average.

And there’s this: From 2002 to 2003, for example, the number of SAT takers nationally grew by 78,500, which was a 5-percent increase, much larger than the 3-percent from 2010 to 2011). Yet average test scores — for verbal and math, because that was before writing was added to the SAT in 2005 — increased by six points, according to Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest.

And in New York state, the participation rate declined from 89 percent in 2007 to 85 percent in 2011, yet average composite scores for the three parts of the SAT declined by 14 points.

If the board’s argument was correct, these things shouldn’t have happened.

And there’s this: critical reading scores in 1972 were 530; today they are 514.

The College Board didn’t exactly lead its release with this news, however; the scores were near the end of a 13-page release, which began with the announcement that (only) 43 percent of 2011 college-bound seniors met what the board calls the SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark, a measure that predicts how well a student will do in college.

(The benchmark, by the way is a combined score in reading, math and writing of 1550 out of a possible 2400, which is said to indicate a 65 percent likelihood that a student will earn a B- average or higher during the first year of college, which is then said to be indicative of a high likelihood of college completion.)

So, is it too much to hope that now, just maybe, people will start to pay attention to the National Research Council’s May analysis of standardized test based school reform in the No Child Left Behind era?

The National Research Council is the research arm of the National Academies, including the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine.

The council report concluded that incentive programs for schools, teachers and students aimed at raising standardized test scores are largely unproductive in generating increased student achievement.

Researchers examined 15 incentive programs implemented over the past decade, programs that were designed to link rewards or sanctions to schools for schools, students and teachers based on test scores. The programs included high-school exit exams and tests given in various grades mandated by No Child Left Behind law.

The conclusion: They “fall short of providing a complete measure of desired educational outcomes in many ways.”

No Child Left Behind remains the law of the land, and though the Obama administration has said it is fatally flawed and designed its own reform program, under the Race to the Top brand, the same test-driven accountability measures remain in place.

At some point, all of the evidence will start to convince policy-makers that the punitive test-driven reforms won’t improve academic achievement, especially among the growing numbers of first-generation students and English language-learners.

We can only hope that it will be soon, before more damage is heaped on the harm already done to public education.

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By  |  05:13 PM ET, 09/14/2011

Categories:  SAT and ACT

 
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