Who Is to Blame for the Test Scores Now?

Writing for Vox, Libby Nelson offers a thoughtful analysis of the recently released average scores on this past year’s SAT tests. She notes that although the average scores declined slightly, at least part of that decline may reflect the increased diversity among the students now taking the test.

Although I have only a very superficial interest in the typically discussed implications of changes in the average SAT scores and have only slightly more interest in the various issues surrounding the selection of questions for the tests, a graph showing the scores over the past six years got my attention for reasons probably not anticipated by Nelson. In fact, that graph prompted me to go to the College Board’s report that was the basis for Nelson’s article. There I found this chart of the average SAT scores over the past 44 years, from 1972 to 2015:

SAT Scores over Time

After even a very superficial look at this chart, one should be struck by how little the average SAT scores have varied not just from year to year but over the whole nearly half-century covered in the chart.

But I am most interested in the average scores over the past fifteen years—since the beginning of George W. Bush’s first term as president and the intensification of the “educational reform” movement. The period has seen the unprecedented proliferation of standardized testing in the name of increasing assessment and accountability. This decade and a half has also seen widespread reductions in state support for public education, increased funding for voucher programs, and increased subsidies for corporate charter-school networks—all in the name of increasing educational options and improving standards through increased competition.

Given that these “reforms” have been promoted as necessary remedies to the supposedly catastrophic” failings of our public-school systems, and given that many of these “reforms” have now been in place for a decade or more, one would expect to see some significant changes in average test scores—particularly in SAT scores since the students taking the SAT are at least considering attending college. Indeed, even the greater diversity among the students taking the SAT test should not be a significant drag on the average scores since the school districts subjected to the most extensive and radical “reforms” have been in urban districts with the most diverse student populations.

But, instead, what we see over the last ten years is a fairly steady decline in the average math, reading, and writing scores on the SAT—a decline that averages out to somewhat more than a one point decline per year over the ten years.

So, the problem for the “reformers” should be fairly obvious: they have championed corporate-provided standardized testing, and the results of almost all of those sorts of tests, including the SAT, are showing that all of the “reforms” have very often not produced any positive results whatsoever and, if anything, seem to be making things worse. But the “reformers” have been boxed in by their own rhetoric–by the mantra of the movement that all that ultimately matters is the test results because those results are “objective.”

Standardized testing and the corporate charter schools are coming under intensified scrutiny, and neither is withstanding that scrutiny any better than the online for-profit colleges and universities have withstood it.

Nonetheless, the real damage is likely to be more lasting simply because it is difficult to turn back the clock. Many aspects of “reform” are almost certain to linger on long after the “reform” movement has been discredited—much as the supposed existential threat posed by the online for-profit colleges and universities has altered the way in which just about every college and university in the country now operates.  The “reformers’ will say that this lasting impact is a good thing, but that claim seems analogous to asserting that surgical scars are a good thing.

Indeed, if the advocates of increased accountability are not held accountable for their failures, there will be no political and historical clarity about what will stand as a failure not just of policy or of strategy but of ideology. So, someone will have to do something more than simply breathe a sigh of relief when most of the privatizers have taken the money and run. Ultimately the question will be whether Americans will continue to make a very clear distinction between profit-making and profiteering and to hold the profiteers accountable for their abuses of the public trust.

Libby Nelson’s article, “The Real Reason That SAT Scores Are Falling” is available at: http://www.vox.com/2015/9/3/9257121/sat-scores-2015.

The College Board’s report on the 2015 SAT results is available at: https://secure-media.collegeboard.org/digitalServices/pdf/sat/total-group-2015.pdf.

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