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Class of '08 Fails To Lift SAT Scores: Flat Results Fuel Debate Over Costly Test-Preparation Courses, Provide Ammunition For Critics of No-Child-Left-Behind Policy

President of the College Board Gaston Caperton is former governor of West Virginia. Before going into politics he owned an insurance company, a bank, and a mortgage banking company, which, of course, makes him well suited to lead an effort to supplant teacher judgment in middle school classrooms. He's doubled the College Board's coffers. That's what this is all about. Take note of who is financing the College Board rape of middle school teacher professionalism: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Beware of using SAT scores as a yardstick to anything. Certainly don't interpret them as evidence of the quality of teaching, as Hechinger does in the first paragraph.

By John Hechinger

High-school students' performance on SAT college-entrance exams stalled, and the gap widened between low-scoring minority groups and the overall population, raising questions about the quality of teaching in U.S. schools.

Average scores for the class of 2008 were 502 for the critical-reading section, 515 for mathematics and 494 for writing. Each of the three numbers was identical to the averages in 2007, meaning combined scores remain at the lowest level so far in the current decade. The reading scores of the past two years were the lowest since 1994. Math represented the worst showing since 2001. Each section is judged on a 200- to 800-point scale.

African-American students received an average critical reading score of 430, 72 points below the general population and three points beneath their 2007 level. Math scores showed a similar pattern. Hispanic students' scores also lagged behind, though the gap was smaller.

Scores represent broad averages and won't have an impact on any individual's applications to colleges. But the wide variations among different groups of test takers fueled the debate on the effectiveness of test-preparation courses that aim to improve performance.

The College Board, the New York-based nonprofit that oversees the test, says the stalled scores stem from a larger and more diverse group of students taking the test. Gaston Caperton, president of the board, called the recent results encouraging because average scores tend to "dip slightly" when more students take the test.

More than 1.5 million students from the high-school class of 2008 took the SAT, 2% more than in 2007 and 8% more than five years ago. Minority SAT takers made up 40% of test takers, up from a third 10 years ago.

SAT scores are closely watched because they measure high-school students with the highest aspirations -- those who are heading to college.

No boost in overall scores and persistent minority shortfalls suggested to some experts that the improvement shown on many state exams mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law may be illusory. The law, which took effect in 2002, mandates that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014 and requires that school systems show steady progress toward meeting that goal or face sanctions. In particular, NCLB is supposed to lift the results of lagging student groups, including minorities. [emphasis added]

Joe Pedulla, an education professor at Boston College and a senior researcher at the school's Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy, said the results, along with those on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a broadly given federal exam, raise questions about the progress reported on state tests. Studies have shown a wide variance in the difficulty levels of the state exams, which are used to measure progress toward goals set by NCLB.

If the progress on state tests were real, Prof. Pedulla says, "the SAT is going to pick that up." In addition, Prof. Pedulla says, the persistent gap in the achievement of minority students is "a very troubling outcome."

The data come amid continuing challenges to the SAT and its prominent role in U.S. higher education. A competing test, the ACT, has grown in popularity in recent years. The ACT scores for the Class of 2008 were also essentially flat compared to the year before, with lagging scores for black and Hispanic students.

An increasing number of schools, including top colleges such as Wake Forest University and Smith College, have decided to make SATs optional, saying they can fill their classes with qualified students without them.

Three years ago, the College Board added the writing section to the SAT, which now runs three hours and 45 minutes. That sparked complaints from students, especially when many colleges say they don't use the writing test for admission. A study by the College Board concluded that the addition of the new section didn't meaningfully improve the ability of the test to predict first-year college performance.

Tuesday's data offered some positive news for girls. Females outperform males on the writing test by 13 points. Girls also narrowed the performance gap on reading to four points, down from seven a decade ago. Boys, however, scored 33 points higher than girls on math -- a persistent differential over the past decade. College Board officials attributed much of that gap to the greater number of girls who take the SAT. In Maine, where schools require the test of all students, the gap is narrower in math, and girls outperform boys on both the reading and the writing tests.

Asian-Americans continue to post stellar results. On the math section, the group achieved an average score of 581, 66 points better than the average. Asian-Americans also outperformed in critical-reading and writing, though by less.

Some students have said that college-admissions offices have placed unofficial quotas on the number of spots allowed for Asian-American students. Using the group's superior SAT scores as evidence, these critics argue that Asian-Americans are held to a higher admissions standard at top colleges. The U.S. Department of Education is investigating such an allegation at Princeton University. The school denies any discrimination and says test scores are only part of its admissions criteria.

Seppy Basili, senior vice president at Washington Post Co.'s Kaplan education unit, says the results suggest the power of test preparation, a key product line for the company. Among Asian-American families "there's a strong understanding that test preparation is an important part of success," he says.

Previous studies have reached conflicting conclusions about the value of professional coaching, with the College Board saying its research shows it has only a small effect.

Laurence Bunin, a College Board senior vice president, said the test-prep industry was fueling "an expensive myth." The organization's research shows that Asian-American students tend to take harder courses, such as higher-level math and those given to prepare for Advanced Placement exams. "The country really needs to focus on this simple and honest truth -- by doing hard work in schools, that's how you get a better education," he says. "That's how you get better SAT scores."

The College Board recently approved a new score-reporting policy that would permit students, starting in March 2009, to select which scores to send to colleges. Currently, schools receive all scores. The change could spur students to take the test more often, since they could cherry-pick the best result.

Write to John Hechinger at john.hechinger@wsj.com1


An overview of results from the Class of 2008's SAT scores:
ΓΆ€ΒΆ Performance remained flat, with an average score of 502 on reading, 515 on math and 494 on writing.
ΓΆ€ΒΆ African-American and Hispanic students lagged behind the general population.
ΓΆ€ΒΆ Asian-American students posted strong scores, especially in math.
ΓΆ€ΒΆ Girls outperformed boys in writing, but not in math.
Source: The College Board

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— John Hechinger
Wall Street Journal


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