IF YOU want to know what's wrong with the press, take a look at the way it handled last week's release of scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
I'm not suggesting that you examine the scores themselves. They tell virtually nothing about America's school children.
Instead, you should examine the hysterical press treatment of these unremarkable scores -- treatment that says more about the school-watchers than about the kids who took the test.
The scores, released by the College Board, showed slight declines in what are constantly described -- misleadingly -- as "national averages" in math and verbal performance.
But the slight declines were treated in the national press as if the sky were falling. "Verbal scores hit new low," said the New York Times in a page-one headline, a headline that captured the spin put on the numbers by the nation's press corps. "SAT verbal scores drop to record low," echoed The Sun in a story placed only second in importance on the front page to "Soviet leaders frantically try to save union."
"A free fall [in verbal scores] is taking place," Donald Stewart, president of the College Board, was quoted as saying. "It's very disturbing."
But this year's slight score decline, reasonably viewed, merits none of the hysteria conveyed by the press corps or by the College Board itself. In fact, a rational review of the latest SAT scores leaves one gaping not at the shortcomings of the students but at the technical incompetence of the media.
The average verbal score of those students who took this year's SAT was 422. This is an astounding two points lower -- on an 800-point scale -- than last year's average score of 424. It is also two points lower than the average score of 424 recorded by twelfth graders who took the test in both 1980 and 1981. Thus, the "free fall" described by Stewart amounts to a two-point decline over 11 years -- a period during which the number of students taking the test increased considerably.
The SAT, as Stewart knows full well and as reporters ought to know, is not a test given to all American high school seniors. It is taken voluntarily by those who wish to attend college, and it is being taken by a higher percentage of students every year. When a small, self-selected number of students in a state take the test, that state is going to have much higher average scores than, say, Maryland, which has a participation rate of 64 percent, 22 percent higher than the national average.
In 1991, 42 percent of American seniors took the verbal SAT. In the class of 1990, 40 percent the test. For the class of 1986, the percentage was only 36.
And so a slight decline in "average scores" is being recorded over a period of time in which more and more students are being tested, including a steadily growing number of students for whom English is not their first language.
Under these circumstances, a two-point drop in scores is simply not a front-page story. In fact, it is hard to see, on a rational basis, what would make anyone think it was a story at all!
Americans may be less well prepared academically than their counterparts in other countries, but the Scholastic Aptitude Test isn't the vehicle to determine if this is true.
Bashing the children has become all too easy. It might be time to step back and ask our educational leaders to begin healing themselves, and the same goes for the press.
Bob Somerby, a former Baltimore city teacher, is a comedian based in Baltimore.