A Modest Takeaway From This Year's Lower SAT Scores

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It looks like SAT scores are down this year. That sounds bad, like our education system is doing worse, but it doesn't really mean much. Taking the SAT is voluntary, so it's not a random sampling of students. More people took the test this year, which means the average score included more people who were in the lower levels of academic achievement. Generally, the more people who opt to take the test, the lower the scores will be.

Case in point: Arizona's SAT scores are higher than the national average. But only 34 percent of Arizona's 2015 graduates took the test. By comparison, in Texas and California, 60 percent of seniors took the test. If we could get the Arizona number down to 25 percent, we'd look great! [Note: I didn't find the national percentage of SAT test takers. If anyone locates that, add it to the comments—with a link—and I'll put it in the post. Thanks.]

And take a look at the scores on the ACT, a similar college readiness test. They were basically unchanged. The ACT had a different sampling of students, with different results.

Digging deeper into the stats of either test won't tell us much. As usual, Anglo and Asian test takers did better than African American, Hispanic and Native American test takers. That's not new news, and it doesn't make much sense to analyze those differences in detail since, again, test takers are a non-random sample of student populations, so close comparisons don't yield much valuable information.

One genuine conclusion does jump out, however. It doesn't look like a decade of No Child Left Behind has left fewer children behind. Scores on the college readiness tests have been in decline, and even if that's due to more test takers, there's no indication of an increase in the number of college ready students. If there was going to be a change, we should have seen it by now, especially since this year's seniors have been in NCLB schools since kindergarten. If NCLB and the high stakes testing that go with it were successful, the country's college readiness should have gone up. Looks like all that testing and all that obsession with teaching reading, writing and math—to the test—while pushing art, music and other kinds of educational enrichment to the side hasn't done much good.

You don't have to rely on the unreliable SAT and ACT score averages to come to that conclusion. Just look at the NAEP tests, which are considered the most reliable test-based indicator of achievement we have. The gradual improvement on student scores since the test was introduced in the 1970s slowed since 2002 when NCLB was introduced.

I've heard people say the testing on steroids that's part of the Common Core regimen will improve things. I guess the problem was, the NCLB testing just wasn't rigorous enough. If we raise the tests' proficiency cut scores and lower the number of students who meet them, surely that will inspire teachers to teach better and students to learn more (he said, sarcastically).

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