Our Falling Reading Scores: What's To Be Done?
This is some troubling news:
Reading skills among U.S. students graduating from high school this year fell to the lowest since 1994 as measured by the most widely taken college-entrance exam.How did the American public education system, once the envy of the world, get into such a sorry state?
Reading scores on the SAT declined 1 point to 502 after a 5- point drop last year, the test's operator, the College Board, reported today. The decline in 2006 had been the largest in three decades. Average math results fell 3 points to 515, and writing grades also declined 3 points, to 494.
The results for the test, taken by 1.5 million high school students, contradict findings from the rival ACT exam, which rose for the third time in five years. The declines also contrast with boasts by schools such as Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania that applicants have higher grades and test scores than ever as they compete in record numbers for freshman- class positions. Harvard accepted just 9 percent this year.
``It sort of confirms the sense in which education in our country is really a tale of two cities,'' said Barmak Nassirian, a spokesman for the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers, based in Washington.
Admissions executives at selective schools report ``a generation of hyperqualified candidates, the likes of which they've never seen,'' Nassirian said. ``Then you get numbers like this, which presumably paint a broader picture, and seem to speak of a general decline.''
The SAT is primarily a U.S. test. On a 2003 assessment of eighth-graders in 44 countries, the average U.S. math score was lower than those in 14 nations, with Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan leading the way.
In science, U.S. eighth-graders were outscored by peers in eight countries, with Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea at the top. In both subjects, the U.S. students' score was above the international average.
College Board officials, while downplaying the one-year declines as statistically insignificant, said at a press conference today the increasing diversity of the test-taking population is pushing scores down. The class of 2007 had the largest number of SAT-takers ever. Maine now requires all high school students, including those not going to college, to take the exam, leading to a 41 percent increase of test takers in that state.
``There were some changes in the overall population taking the SAT,'' said Lawrence Bunin, senior vice president at the College Board.
Ethnic, Demographic Groups
The College Board, a nonprofit group based in New York, described the trend in SAT reading scores as ``essentially flat'' and said the direction of math results is up, although there was a 5-point drop during the past two years. The average math grade was 14 points higher than 20 years ago.
One critic of educational testing said declines in the past two years show that changes made to the SAT in 2005 undermined its usefulness as a measure of student abilities over time.
"The College Board failed to keep its promise that the revised SAT would be comparable to the old test,'' said Bob Schaeffer, a spokesman for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Schools Drop Tests
Almost 20 schools decided in the past year to drop the SAT and the ACT as a requirement for applications, the anti-testing group said. Officials at those schools have said they have doubts about the reliability of the standardized tests as predictors of students' college performance.
ACT Inc., based in Iowa City, Iowa, said the average score on each of the test's four sections rose for the class of 2007. That test was taken by 1.3 million students.
This year was only the second time the College Board reported results for the writing portion of the SAT. The section, started in March 2005, was intended to make the SAT more relevant to college-admission decisions.
The writing test was the only one of four sections in which the women's score, 500, was higher than the men's, 489. Men registered a higher average score in math, 533 compared with 499, while the gender gap in reading narrowed to 2 points, the smallest margin since 1973.
SAT reading scores rose for Mexican-Americans and other Spanish speakers, by 1 point, and for Asian-Americans, by 4 points. The most-affluent group, students in families making more than $100,000 a year, had an average reading score of 544. The poorest, those with less than $10,000 of annual family income, averaged 427.
And how can it be fixed?