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.