Bloomberg News's Janet Lorin reports that American high-schoolers bombed on the SAT this year, with the average critical reading score falling 1 point to 496 from a year earlier, the lowest since data became available in 1972. The average score for writing dropped 1 point to 488, the lowest since the section was added in 2006. (Math scores held steady.) The College Board, which administers the test, also found that only 43 percent of seniors were prepared for college.
Here's why: More students, particularly minorities, are taking the test. In all, 755,000 minority students took the 2012 test -- up from 600,000 in 2008 -- making up 45 percent of test-takers. In addition, 458,000 of the students reported that they did not speak English as their first language, and 36 percent of test-takers did not have a parent who attended college.
The growth was nationwide. In Texas, the participation rates of Hispanic and black students have increased by 65 and 42 percent, respectively, since 2007. A record 65 percent of public high school students took the test in North Carolina. In Virginia, 40 percent of test-takers were minorities, another record. The Washington Post reports that in Maryland there has been an 8.5 percent increase in the number of blacks who have taken the SATs over the last five years, and a 15.5 percent rise in the number of Hispanics.
Yes, higher test scores this year would have been better. But given the much-improved participation by minority groups, which have long underachieved on such tests, a relatively insignificant decline in overall scores doesn't seem grounds for doom-and-gloom over the country's future. The results should be viewed positively, as proof that more students than ever are seeing in themselves the potential to get ahead through higher education.
Of course, critics of testing and the No Child Left Behind law will use the data to further their cause. "“NCLB and state high-stakes testing programs have dramatically undercut college readiness,” Bob Schaeffer, a spokesman for FairTest, a Boston-based nonprofit group critical of standardized testing, told Bloomberg. “Test-driven K-12 school policies have been a colossal failure.” In other words, Schaeffer is using results on a standardized test as his metric for proving that standardized testing is flawed.
Doubtless, universities place far too much emphasis on the SAT and the ACT. Likewise, the one-size-fits-all regimen of No Child Left Behind was hardly perfect. But testing pupils throughout their K-12 education is necessary if we are to have apples-to-apples data on achievement and some sort of consistent national standards. And we're making progress on improving assessments, including the Race to the Top initiative under U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the Common Core standards initiative that's been adopted by 45 states. Returning to the days of lax oversight and patchwork state and local standards will only stifle the hopes of the next generation of U.S. schoolchildren.
(Tobin Harshaw writes editorials for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)