One possible reason occurs to me as to why Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have sunk to their lowest level in years:
Kids today are really, really dumb.
Many experts are having difficulty grappling with this. But it could explain why the 1991 SAT verbal scores are the lowest in history and the math scores have sunk for the first time in a decade.
The average verbal score is now 422, and the average math score is 474.
In practical terms, this means that the average high school student can read, comprehend and compute less well than most species of newts.
Scores of 422 and 474 might not sound too bad for a test that has a top score of 800. But SAT scores start at 200. That's right: If a kid is savvy enough to sit upright in a chair for two and a half hours, the SAT people reward him with 200 points.
The average scores in Maryland were slightly better than the national average scores and still better than New Jersey's average scores.
This latter fact is important. As one local school administrator explained it to me: "This means when it comes to competing for those really good casino jobs in Atlantic City -- blackjack, craps and slot machine repair -- Maryland graduates can still hold their own!"
Over the last few days, I have watched many experts go on TV and try to decide who is to blame for these new lower scores. Parents seem to be the favorite target.
Parents, the experts say, don't care enough about their kids' education or take enough time to help their kids with their homework.
Well, OK. Want to spend more time helping your kid with his homework? Sit him down at the kitchen table tonight and:
1. Explain the laws of sines and cosines.
2. Compare and contrast the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
3. Give three examples of foreshadowing in "Silas Marner."
And it wouldn't even make much difference if you could do all those things. Because at some point your kid would say in that really whiny voice of his: "Why do I got to know any of this stuff anyway? I mean, what am I going to use it for?"
And at that point you would just have to square your shoulders and say in a direct and uncompromising voice: "Say, isn't Wednesday 'Doogie Howser M.D.' night? Whaddya say we watch and see if Vinnie can help Doogie get Wanda back?"
Some experts say the tests themselves are to blame for the lower scores because they are biased against kids who grow up in urban environments. But the SAT people are trying to solve this.
This year, for instance, a new question and answer were included on the test:
"Plow is to agriculture as:
"1. submachine gun is to career choice.
"2. getaway car is to armed robbery.
"3. get out of my face, you pencil-necked geek."
The answer is, of course: "4. All of the above."
My own SAT scores were like most people's: Not great, but better than those of the kids in New Jersey.
In other words, they were not good enough to get me into Harvard but could probably get me into a state school if I got really good grades my last semester and returned my towel to the locker room cage before graduation.
When I took my scores home, my parents were disappointed. My father said: "As far as I'm concerned you don't have to go to college at all! You could get a job and start paying some rent around here!"
My mother said: "Your cousin Reuben is going to Harvard and becoming a doctor, and you'll go to a state school and become . . . a what?"
A newspaper columnist? I said.
"Better you should get a real job and start paying some rent around here!" she said.
Over the years, SAT scores have dropped and we have "dumbed-down" society accordingly. There are any number of examples:
At the fast food restaurant I go to, the cash register has pictures of the food on it, so the kid behind the counter doesn't have to know how to read to punch the buttons.
The cash register also tells him how much change to give me, so he doesn't have to know how to add.
And I just read an article in the Wall Street Journal that this fall the Ford Taurus, Mercury Sable and Lincoln Town Car "will all get radios that will automatically lower the volume to a preset level each time the car is started." Why? Because parents have been complaining that when they start up their cars after their teen-agers have driven them, their eardrums are nearly blown out by the radio volume.
That is what I mean by "dumbing-down." Teen-agers today cannot even be expected to learn how to turn down a car radio. Instead, we will build a car radio that will do it for them.
But why are kids dumber today? Nobody knows for sure. I suspect it has something to do with all those hormones we've been feeding to cows that enter the human food chain through fast-food hamburgers.
Or it could be that many kids no longer see any point in learning. Why learn about sines and cosines if the cash register is going to make the change for you?
So the SAT scores will probably continue to get worse. But educators are dead wrong when they think this will make parents angry.
This is making parents feel great. Because parents can remember their own SAT scores. And they can compare them to today's.
And that's when they realize that today not only could they get into Harvard, they could teach there.