High School Students Hit a Forty Year Low on the SAT Reading Section

Over 50 percent of test takers scored below the level that would indicate college success, and scores from every racial group but one (Asian) declined

Nate Beaty

Are you smarter than a high-schooler? Well, when it comes to reading, that might not mean that much. Reading scores on the SAT hit an forty year low this year. Over 50 percent of test takers scored below the level that would indicate college success, and scores from every single racial group but one (Asian) declined. The Washington Post reports:

The average reading score for the 2012 graduating class was 496, down one point from the previous year and 34 points since 1972. The average score on the writing portion of the exam was 488, down nine points since that subject was first tested in 2006. Math scores were flat, compared with 2011.

The SAT itself has long been subject to criticism. Data suggests that the test is biased in favor of middle-class and wealthy students: the average score increases with every additional $20,000 in annual family income, as this Washington Post graphic demonstrates. Other studies suggest that the SAT isn’t a good predictor of college success.

In 2001, Richard C. Atkinson, the president of the University of California, suggested dropping the SAT from the requirements of the UC System. He said:

For many years, I have worried about the use of the SAT but last year my concerns coalesced. I visited an upscale private school and observed a class of 12-year-old students studying verbal analogies in anticipation of the SAT. I learned that they spend hours each month—directly and indirectly—preparing for the SAT, studying long lists of verbal analogies such as “untruthful is to mendaciousness” as “circumspect is to caution.” The time involved was not aimed at developing the students’ reading and writing abilities but rather their test-taking skills. What I saw was disturbing, and prompted me to spend time taking sample SAT tests and reviewing the literature. I concluded what many others have concluded—that America’s overemphasis on the SAT is compromising our educational system.

And what about students for whom English is a second language? The Columbia Spectator writes:

An inevitable effect of globalization is the increasingly international makeup of universities. NACAC rightly points out that “demographic changes in the U.S. are likely to result in greater numbers of English-as-a-second-language students seeking admission to college.” That would make “predicting first-year grades for such students extremely difficult.” NACAC further argues that such “demographic changes” cast doubt on the validity of the SAT as a predictor of the success of a college first-year.

But even if the SAT is biased, it’s clear that students are doing worse than they have in forty years. Why? Well, the economic crisis probably had something to do with it. The Washington Post writes:

“Some kids are coming to school hungry, some without the health care they need, without the vocabulary that middle-class kids come to school with, even in kindergarten,” said Helen F. Ladd, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University.

“If we really want to do something to close achievement gaps and raise test scores, we have to stop putting our heads in the sand and start addressing this issue,” she said.

And the problem is not limited to the SAT, either. Only 25 percent of students who took the ACT were deemed “college ready.”

If you’re wondering what the SAT stands for, stop. It doesn’t stand for anything at all. It used to stand for the Scholastic Aptitude Test and then the Scholastic Assessment Test. Now it’s an empty acronym. Much like the heads of the kids taking the test.

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