SAT Scores Decline and that Doesn't Matter

There are a number of things that are probably worthy of improvement at American high schools, but falling SAT scores don't indicate a problem.
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According to a recent report by the College Board, the organization that owns and administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test taken by high school students, the average American SAT score is falling. The average reading score dropped three points to 497. The average writing score dropped two points to 489. The average math score dropped one point to 514. Some critics think this is a problem.

They are, however, very wrong. There are a number of things that are probably worthy of improvement at American high schools, but falling SAT scores don't indicate a problem. It is, admittedly, hard to resist thinking this, however.

Douglas McIntyre at Daily Finance screams “SAT Scores Fall Nationwide: A Harbinger of U.S. Economic Decline.” The decline in SAT scores, McIntyre writes, is “yet another data point in the suggesting that America is falling behind much of the rest of the world in terms of educational attainment.”

Brian Resnick writes at The Atlantic that "mean SAT reading scores have fallen to their lowest levels in nearly 40 years, dropping four points in the last four years to 497. Only 43 percent of test takers achieved a total score indicating they are likely to succeed in college."

Carla Rivera at the Los Angeles Times writes:

The high school graduating class of 2011 lost ground on every measure of the SAT exam, with reading scores nationally the lowest on record, prompting concern about whether students are being adequately prepared for college, officials said Wednesday.

Really, who are those officials? Because that concern would be inappropriate; SAT scores are supposed to decline. The more high school students take them, the lower the scores go.

Even the Washington Post, which put “Average SAT scores down for high school class of 2011 as test-taking pool expands” in the headline, still fell into this trap, warning that “the relatively poor performance on the SATs could raise questions whether reading and writing instruction need even more emphasis to accommodate the country’s changing demographics.”

What does that even mean?

The SAT was first introduced to American schools in 1901. Since then the number of students taking the test has increased immensely. Today students from virtually every high school in America take the college placement examination.

Because the SAT became required for college admissions, and high schools started to push all students to higher education, that meant that many students from less rigorous high schools took the test. By 1994 the average verbal score was 428. The average Math score was 478. And so in 1995 the College Board “recentered’ the test; the organization changed the scoring system so that median new score was again closer to 500.

The SAT scores have always declined. And they always will. They’re not meant to be an indication of the intelligence of American students, or the quality of American public high schools. The SAT is vaguely an intelligence test but the way the test is administered about half of American students score above 500 on each section. About half score below.

SAT decline is a sign of the success of the College Board’s marketing efforts, not of the failure of the U.S. educational system. The only way to stop this decline, in a long-term sense, would be fewer students taking the test, not better education.

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