SAT Scores: A Distraction from the Urgent Need for Massive Reform

The College Board has recently released its 2009 SAT results. These results increasingly are a distraction, a national narcotic that dulls the collective senses into believing that there are reform programs deserving of being evaluated.

The U.S. education system is simply toying with reform.  For more than a quarter of a century, America’s schooling system has remained stagnant, and pupil performance indicators continually reflect this condition.


Ever since 1966, the U.S. has systematically collected annual school performance information.  Each year, there are only modest perturbations in all these measures.  In any one year, scores in mathematics ascend a point or two and reading scores descend by a comparable amount.  Gaps between ethnic and income categories narrow and widen.  Dropouts, expulsions, and crime mildly fluctuate. On and on it goes.

Here is what the College Board said in its press release regarding the 2009 SAT scores.

On a long-term basis, students’ mathematics scores have experienced an upward trend and are now four points higher than a decade ago; conversely, critical reading scores have declined somewhat and are now four points below what they were 10 years ago.

Regardless of the measures involved, student achievement results reflect four decades of abject stagnation.

Testing experts and policy wonks routinely opine regarding this flat line.  Scores are up because of (name your favorite fad: better texts, smaller classes, or teachers with MA degrees) or are down because of (name your favorite bogeyman: oppressive administrators, recalcitrant teacher unions, or inept ed schools).  Statisticians explain the changes, regardless of direction, by claiming “regression to the mean.”

School supporters proclaim that more money and smaller classes are what is needed.  Perhaps they are, but no nation now spends as much per pupil. Moreover, during the past four decades the U.S. has cut mean class size in half.

In the midst of this booming, buzzing cacophony of acclaim and criticism, it is useful to invoke a modicum of historical perspective.

A Need for A New Education System

Until the emergence of a global economy, it was possible for a student to perform poorly in school, drop out, obtain a reasonably well-paying manufacturing job, and pursue the material part of the America Dream.  That has all changed and changed rapidly.  Now, education counts as never before.

No other major nation has previously been faced with the daunting challenge of educating virtually all its people to a high standard.  A frequent, and inaccurate, statement is “We know how to achieve this objective but we lack the political will.”  Actually, our political system has made a sustained commitment to education reform.

What must be frankly acknowledged is that there are many unknowns regarding school improvement on a scale that America now needs. The route to higher performance is not via superficial fads and slogans, but through trying what is sensible and quickly abandoning that which proves unworkable.

Regrettably, to date our nation has responded to this new condition through tepid incrementalism. A tiny speck of teacher performance pay here, a dab of curriculum alignment there, a tiny piece of teacher professional development over there, block scheduling and a day or two of leadership training here, and a friendly nod to parent engagement somewhere.  However, these individual, ad hoc, and sometimes short-sighted and superficial school improvement components have had virtually no cumulative impact on student achievement.

Some Specifics

What the nation’s school systems need to try, and continually appraise, is coherent and comprehensive reform strategies consisting of operational components such as:

– More rigorous and visible performance standards

– Promotion of institutional competition and innovation

– Recruitment and reward of talented leaders

– Fair and more comprehensive testing

– Rational links between K-12 and post-secondary systems

– Selected resource targeting

– Accurate accountability

– Appropriate performance incentives

– Celebrations of excellence and cloning of success

– Rapid mid- course corrections

These are the logical steps to better schools that are worthy of sustained and coherent experimentation.

The Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top,” while undoubtedly well intended, is unlikely to be sufficient.  It is far too timid. States will not propose coherent reforms, and are even less likely to regard them as experiments.  The more likely outcome is that fads will be funded and, regardless of their success, will attract protective constituencies, thereby adding to encrusted and politicized school bureaucracies.

A more exciting national approach would be something on the scale of the Tennessee Valley Authority or the Manhattan Project.  These were massive and comprehensively structured efforts that undertook a coherent strategy of change with clear objectives: harness science and win a war, electrify a region and jumpstart its economy.

If press releases trumpeted experimental and comprehensive research of this nature and magnitude, one could be more excited.

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