Monday, August 31, 2009
The most troubling thing about the recent drop in SAT scores is not that the scores
fell but that our state’s education leaders appear to be so uninformed about the
nature of testing. Instead of declaring that action is needed and debating over which
test to take, they should be asking whether the SAT or ACT should be required at
The test is being used inappropriately, yet the state’s response appears to be a
commitment to continue in an inappropriate direction, except more diligently. Equally
disappointing was the AJC’s failure to help readers put the scores in context.
Statistically, a drop of a few points is relatively meaningless. Even a larger drop
can be the result of getting just a few more questions wrong. It does not indicate
any profound decrease in what young people know. Re-taking the tests and test prep
programs are at times effective simply because the test-taker learns how to “game”
Familiarity and tricks of the trade are what help. Time devoted to SAT preparation
in schools is time taken away from real teaching and meaningful learning. Even if
scores do increase, all that has been shown is that students were able to temporarily
recall information relevant to one specific test. That is training, not authentic
learning. I can be “trained” to pass a test of medical vocabulary. You would not
want me as your surgeon.
A preoccupation with comparing scores from year to year or decade to decade is also
misguided and misleading. First, you need to take into consideration that the SAT
is more difficult now than it was in the past. Also, test scores vary from region
to region based on emphasis, income, or culture.
In fact, some researchers have noted that the single best predictor of SAT scores
is not a rigorous curriculum or instructional time, but a student’s address. Comparisons
over time are also complicated by how the interpreter uses the statistics, the points
of comparison that are used and what the interpreter leaves out of the story.
One of the most important things to consider is that the SAT was never intended as
a measure of achievement or content knowledge and was not meant to be aligned to
any given curriculum. It was intended as a measure of potential success in college
and a tentative one at that — since high school grade-point average is probably a
In fact, the purpose of the test has become obscured to the point of meaninglessness.
It is simply a test one must take. The publishers of the SAT know this, but the testing
industry has created a multimillion-dollar industry on the backs of our children
and uninformed legislators and business leaders who cry for accountability.
If there was ever a golden age of high SAT scores (and research does not support
that there was) it was because only a select group of students took the test — those
who were college-bound during a period when relatively few students attended college.
To require increasing numbers of students to take the test is at best folly and a
setup for failure — a frequent blunder among education policy-makers — and at worst
There is emerging evidence of a drop in the absolute number of students scoring at
the very highest levels of the SAT. What that might signal is that by forcing all
students into advanced courses that are meant for relatively few, we might be hurting
both those who really need the courses and those who could benefit more from other
Finally, the notion that a test must be taken and that the scores matter is seldom
questioned. However, that notion is questionable. While not yet widespread, more
and more universities are either getting rid of or making optional the use of test
scores in admissions. When students are taking the test multiple times over several
years, and hiring SAT coaches, high scores are more an indication of persistence,
pressure and disposable income than academic ability.
It is equally questionable and misleading to encourage all students to take the test
based on the argument that all students should be prepared for college. Yes, college
helps your future earning potential and has other less tangible benefits. But after
many years of college teaching, I challenge the notion that all young people are
suited for and should attend college. Even in pure job market terms, Department of
Labor projections indicate that the majority of jobs in the future will not require
a four-year college degree. We might be better off directing our efforts toward increasing
the dignity of all work and striving toward providing a living wage, regardless of
Education leaders need to step back from quick fixes and conciliatory posturing and
apologies and take time to look at how all of the state’s educational woes might
If we have low scores, high dropout rates, rising discipline problems, difficulty
in recruiting and retaining teachers, you need to look at more fundamental questions.
How do we create meaningful learning experiences instead of mind-numbing scripted
teaching that treats teachers as incompetents and trains students as you would your
Should we restore autonomy to local districts to address local situations with a
local curriculum instead of rushing toward a national, one-size-fits-all model?
What might happen to dropout rates if we provided a diversified educational experience
that respects students who are not college-bound?
And, as has become painfully clear in recent months, can we ever say with any integrity
that we value our children’s education when we steadfastly refuse to raise the taxes
to pay for it? Or when we refuse to require corporations to help pay for the educated
workers they say they need by paying their taxes instead of playing one state or
community against another in order to be freed of that responsibility?
Rick Breault is an associate professor of elementary and early childhood education
at Kennesaw State University.