kitchen table math, the sequel: Marilyn Jager Adams on the 20-year decline in SAT scores

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Marilyn Jager Adams on the 20-year decline in SAT scores

Lynn G left a link to Marilyn Adams' article on reading Advancing Our Students' Language and Literacy, which opens with a reprise of the decline in SAT reading scores:
Few Changes on SAT Posted by Class of 2010.” “Scores on SAT College Entrance Test Hold Steady.” “Class of 2008 Matches ’07 on the SAT.” Year by year, point by point, it is hard to see the real news in these headlines. The real news is not that the SAT scores have held steady. The real news is that the SAT scores haven’t increased. The SAT scores of our college-bound students have been languishing not for one or two years, but for a long time. Several decades ago, scores were much higher.

The SAT score decline began in 1962, nearly 50 years ago. From 1962 to 1980, math scores fell 36 points to 492 while verbal scores fell 54 points to 502. Since 1980, the math scores have been gradually climbing back and are now at 516. Fluctuations aside, the verbal scores remain unchanged, even today study at 502.

If I were writing the headline for the next newspaper story on the SATs, here’s what you’d see: “Seniors and Their SAT scores Sabotaged by Low-Level Textbooks.” And if the copyeditor would let me, I’d add an exclamation point! The literacy level of our secondary students is languishing because the kids are not reading what they need to be reading.


To be sure, whether scores on the SAT exams truly reflect relevant or important intellectual or academic proficiencies remains a topic of discussions. Yet, the SATs are not the only indication that the literacy growth of our secondary students has fallen behind.

Between 1994 and 1998, the United States joined 19 other developed countries in an international evaluation of adult literacy levels. As compared with their peers in the other countries, the literacy scores of older U.S. adults (36 years old and up) were quite high, ranking in the top five. In contrast, the scores for younger U.S. adults (35 years old or less) ranked in the bottom half of the distribution by every measure. Among young adults with a high school diploma or less, those from the United states fell at the bottom of the pile, ranking 19th out of 20th. Even among participants who had completed four or more years of postsecondary education, the scores of our young adults were below the average for same-aged and like educated peers in other countries. The young adults in this study would have graduated from high school between 1974 and 1998, during the period when the verbal SAT scores were bottoming out.


Crimson Wife said...

A much smaller percentage of high school students took the SAT in the 1960's. My dad did because he applied to Harvard but neither my mom, my MIL, nor my FIL were required to take it by their colleges. The broadening of the SAT pool is a big factor in the decline. Once ETS expanded past the Ivy hopefuls, it's only natural to see a big increase in average and below-average scoring students.

Jo in OKC said...

SAT scores across various states aren't comparable even in the same year because of who takes the test.

In Oklahoma, for example, only the top students who hope to go out of state for college or have a shot at National Merit take the SAT. Most kids take the ACT.

However, the ACT's not required, so some people headed for community college or work don't take it at all. (There's at least one midwestern state where every student takes the ACT. I can't remember what state that is.)

I know when I went to high school in Texas, most kids took the SAT, not the ACT. However, I've heard that some school districts are trying to increase their average SAT scores by encouraging only the top students to take them.

When you have gamemanship like that going on, you can't compare from School A to School B or state C to state D or year Y to year Z.

Also, out here in flyover country, test prep for college entrance exams is uncommon. I know the local high school offers a short course (a few hours) for kids who want to prep, but it's not significant. You never hear of someone getting private tutoring to prepare for the SAT or ACT.