Thursday, September 15, 2011

SAT scores fall to new lows

Every year, more than 1.5 million high school students take the SAT -- the test used by most selective colleges to assist in enrollment decisions. According to headlines this week, the scores for the class of 2011 were the lowest ever recorded.

There are a few ways to spin this. A positive one is that the number of people taking the test has been increasing, and this larger pool of young people has far more diverse backgrounds in the past. The proportion of test-takers who are minorities has risen, as has the proportion who speak English as a second language, and the proportion who qualified to have the test fee waived. American young people seem to be absorbing the message that going to college matters, and in order to have the option of going to college, you often need to take either the SAT or ACT. This is roughly the same statistical phenomenon which would have shown falling wages when women entered the workforce in droves. You could focus on the falling wages, or you could say hey, look at all these people without a work history who are getting a foothold in the economy and are diversifying the job market.

However, there's a limit to this positive spin. Because it would be even better if scores were rising and the test-takers were becoming more diverse. To some degree, falling test scores mean what they show. Among the American young people who consider themselves college material, most are not in fact prepared for college. The College Board says students need to score a 1550 out of 2400 to have a 65% chance of getting at least a B-minus average during their first year of college. Only 43% of test-takers met that threshold.

The question of why they don't meet it is obviously the one that has been bedeviling the public for years. America spends quite a bit of money per pupil -- more than many countries that do better -- and doesn't seem to be getting the right return on investment. There's a profound anti-intellectual culture many places, where "high school" conjures up images of football and prom rather than college readiness. Fingers can be pointed many places. Parents don't care. Kids watch too much TV. School is too short. We need more excellent teachers. Bright students need to be challenged; failing kids need to be put back on track.

But regardless of the blame, the issue is a fairly tragic one, because we are increasingly living in a bifurcated economy. There is both a talent shortage and widespread unemployment. Wages for medium- and low-skilled workers are stalling (with household incomes now stuck at 1996 levels) and yet companies that require very specific specialized skills (say, Google) are throwing money and perks at their hires. The best solution to the jobs crisis would be to have more young people falling into the latter category. Judging by the new SAT results, it just doesn't seem to be happening.

5 comments:

Asianmommy said...

Part of the problem is the "Too Cool For School" attitude that is prevalent in the US. Unfortunately, studying is just not cool. How do we go about changing this?

Anonymous said...

This is just my humble opinion; I did not receive my education in US, but managed to take a degree course associated with one of the universities in US. From my experience and what I saw from my son's school work, I felt that the schools in US is not giving the kids enough work and push them to a higher level. Why are our kids not performing better when we have better facilities, teachers and environment? Even the ratio of students to teacher is much higher outside US. My elementary school had 44 students in a class with one teacher. With that said, our kids are capable of doing better, but we are not pushing them hard enough. I am not saying we should push them so hard like some other countries parents, just they sure can take a little more push.

JP said...

"But regardless of the blame, the issue is a fairly tragic one, because we are increasingly living in a bifurcated economy. There is both a talent shortage and widespread unemployment. Wages for medium- and low-skilled workers are stalling (with household incomes now stuck at 1996 levels) and yet companies that require very specific specialized skills (say, Google) are throwing money and perks at their hires."

You only need so many people to program at Google.

And we have massive unemployment because the entire economy is complete debt-saturated and all of the manufacturing is being done in China.

We've been producing much more stuff than we've actually needed for years.

The "jobs" that have been created since 2000 were based on the mass fraud in the housing market.

Aurora Orsini said...

Maybe this means we need to take a look at the policies on education. Students change through time, and the methods that worked before may not be yielding the same result today.

Evan Adams said...

On the subject of "you only need so many people to program at Google", it's worth noting that they have a tendency to "buy up" talented programmers that they don't actually need, just so that other companies won't get them. They make so much money through ad revenue that they can do basically whatever they want, including hiring superfluous programmers. Or making them less superfluous by being like "here is all the money, some state of the art facilities, and calibrated food that you don't have to think about. Do something cool." and then hoping it turns into a useful thing.