September 18, 2011

Anybody paying attention to modern school reform will not be surprised to learn that new SAT results show scores in reading, writing and math are down compared with those of last year, and stagnant or declining for several years. 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 graduating seniors in 2011, average scores were down three points in critical reading compared with those of the year before.

The picture looks even worse if you look back several years: Since 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 six points for reading, four for math and eight for writing.

And racial and ethnic achievement gaps show no sign of closing. 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 nine-point drop; Puerto Ricans, a 17-point decline; and other Hispanics or Latinos, a 14-point decline, according to FairTest, an organization dedicated to eliminating the misuse of tests.

The College Board 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.

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

At some point, all of the evidence will start to convince policymakers that 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.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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