A steady 14-year drop in average scores on the college entrance exam was blamed yesterday on television, watered-down school standards, the increased number of blacks and women now taking the tests, and social traumas that made the last 10 years a "decade of distraction."
In a report concluding a two-year study on declining Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores, a special panel rejected the idea of ascribing the decline to changes in the test themselves.
Instead, the College Entrance Examination Board report attributed up to three-fourths of the decline between 1960 and 1970 to "changes in the composition of the group of students going to college."
Since 1970, however, the composition has remained stable, and the continuing decline into 1977 results from a change in social attitudes, relaxed learning standards, television, high divorce rates, and "unprecedented turbulence in the nation's affairs," the report said.
The decline in SAT test scores, which has been reflected in other standardized tests, constitutes "serious business warranting careful attention by everybody interested in education," the report said.
About one million college bound high school juniors and seniors take the SAT test each year. Since 1960, the average score on the verbal section of the exam has dropped 49 points, from 478 to 429. Mathematics scores declined 32 points, from 502 to 470.
At the same time, the report found "grade inflation" giving students more "A's" and "B's" than ever before.
The special panel, headed by former Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz, refused to ascribe the decline to any single factor.
However, it used some of its toughest language in attacking standards in schools. "Absenteeism formerly considered intolerable is condoned," he said. "An 'A' or 'B' means a good deal less than it used to. Promotion from one grade to another has become almost automatic. Homework has apparently been cut about in half. Open-admissions colleges are available; if entering students don't know how to read and write and do arithmetic, remediation is available."
The report also documented for the first time the impact on average scores of the increased numbers of blacks, women and disadvantaged students taking the SAT test. Blacks, it said, typically score 100 points below whites on the verbal SAT test, and 115 points below them on math tests. On average, women do as well as white males on verbal test, but fall 52 points below them in math.
The report, based on 38 studies the panel dommissioned and on what it called "circumstantial evidence," enumerated developments that were said to have pulled the quality of education downward:
Reduction in required high school courses, and their replacement with electivecourse. "Less thoughtful and critical reading is now being demanded and done, and careful writing has apparently about gone out of style."
Television. The TV that children watch - 10,000 to 15,000 hours by the time they reach 16 - "detracts from homework" and "competes with schooling more generally."
Divorce rates. The number of children living in homes with fewer than two parents is increasing at a rate of 300,000 a year. "While evidence is not available to determine the effect of these changes on students' college entrance examination scores, our conjecture is that it is "negative." Moreover, the role of the undivided family in the educational process has declined.
Students attitudes. "There has been an apparent marked diminution in young people's learning motivation."
A "decade of distraction." The panel said it didn't know how much trauma the Vietnam war, racial strife, political assassinations and Watergate caused among students, but said it was certain that these influenced learning.
The panel rejected the idea that the tests themselves had become harder. It said they had actually become better in predicting how well students will fare in college, which is their chief purpose.
It also said it could find little solid evidence to indicate that "forced busing" or educational experiments adversely affected test scores.
Noting the problems students have encountered, the panel said, "We have wondered sometimes in the course of our inquiry why the score declines haven't been larger."