Declining scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test are not an indication that America's education system is getting worse, though the average verbal score reached an all-time low. Rather, it is an indication that even after a decade of so-called education reform, schools haven't gotten much better.
It is not the first indication, either. While the SAT is criticized as a measure of school performance because it is taken only by a self-selected group of students who intend to apply to college, other tests based on representative samples of students show the same result. What's more, the SAT trend is not new. Scores peaked in the mid-1960s, then went into a long decline. There was a brief turnaround in the early-1980s, but SAT verbal scores have shown small declines five years in a row. Math scores remained the same for four years before this year's drop.
The lack of improvement is sometimes blamed on more students taking the tests. Since these students, on average, are not as academically accomplished as previous SAT-takers, a drop in test scores is not surprising. This misses a key point: These new test-takers are going through the rigors of the SATs because they plan to attend college. If the country is to attain its goal of a more educated work force without devaluing college education, it must add to the quality as well as the quantity of college-bound students.
There is a new wave of school reform, once again stressing more tests. Maryland launched statewide tests in the last school year. The Bush administration is pressing for a national testing program. And there is a push to require more of the same old courses -- students who were once required to take two math courses in high school are now forced to take three, for example, and in Maryland may soon be required to take four.
Students at the top of the achievement range are not being challenged enough, and the added requirements don't help; competitive colleges already demand more credits than states require for high school diplomas. What needs to be examined -- and here the new tests may help -- is the adequacy of course content.
Students at the bottom of the achievement range are not learning well enough. Requiring them to take more courses -- taught the same way -- won't help. Schools need to experiment with other methods of teaching and to evaluate new approaches. As the SAT scores illustrate, the performance of our schools is just not good enough.