The SAT And Killing The Messenger

Average scores on the SAT dipped a bit for high school seniors who graduated in the class of 2009, and the usual suspects—our friends at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FAIR) are already using the lower scores to attack the whole idea of standardized testing, a platform that includes not only the SAT but also the No Child Left Behind Act, with its emphasis on improving test results.
The falloff from last year’s average scores was actually minimal: from 502 last year to 501 this year (out of a range from 200 to 800) on the critical-reading section of the SAT, no change from last year’s average math score of 515, and a one-point drop in the average score for the writing portion of the test, from 494 to 493.
What was striking about the score changes was the “widening” (as the press called it) of the score gap between male and female test-takers and between whites and Asian-Americans on one hand and blacks, American Indians, and Hispanics on the other. Average combined scores for whites fell by two points from last year, but it fell by four points for African-Americans, and it also slipped over last year for Indians and Hispanics. The biggest winners were Asian-Americans, whose average total combined score for all three parts of the SAT was a soaring 1635, compared with 1509 for all seniors in the class of 2009. Outstanding Asian math scores (587 was the average) accounted for most of the difference. Furthermore, males in the class of 2009 scored 27 points higher on average than females on the SAT this year, compared with 24 points higher last year. Again, the difference was largely due to far higher male scores on the math portion of the test.


Many explanations have been proffered for the dip in overall scores and for the various achievement caps. One is that a record number of young people—more than 1.5 million—took the test, and more test-takers usually means more underqualified text-takers (the SAT tests basic college-readiness skills). Some 40 percent of those who took the test this year belonged to ethnic minorities, and more than one-third said their parents had never attended college. More than 25 percent reported that English was not the first language.they used at home.
Another explanation offered was that lower-performing minority students tend to go to school in poorer districts with fewer financial resources. Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, which oversees the SAT, told the Wall Street Journal that “[a]s a country, we must do better providing students of every background access to the best education.” Whether the school districts that serve minority children really spend less is an open question. Heavily black Washington, D.C., for example, spends nearly $25,000 per student on its public schools, around the cost of tuition at Washington’s most expensive private schools. It is true that higher-income families produce higher-scoring SAT-takers, but Asian students tend to outperform others no matter what their families’ income levels may be.
Most disturbing—at least to FAIR and feminists—is the persistent gender gap in SAT scores, even though female college students tend to have higher grade-point averages than their male counterparts. A favorite feminist explanation is that the disparity is a mere “sampling gap,” since at least 100,000 more girls than boys take the SAT each year, which means that the female pool of test-takers is larger, with proportionately more takers at the lower end of academic performance than are in the male pool. If the sample sizes were equal, average male and female SAT scores would be equal, the reasoning goes. That sounds reassuring to feminists, except that Mark J. Perry, blogging for the Encyclopedia Britannica, points out that the male-female score gap has actually decreased in size over the long run since 1977, when roughly equal numbers of boys and girls took the test. (the 1977 high was 46 points). That hasn’t stopped FAIR from complaining that the SAT discriminates against females because as FAIR says, “a fair and valid assessment would not consistently underpredict the academic capacity of young women.” The fact that neuroscientists have documented substantial physiological differences between the male and female brain that might account for men’s greater aptitude for math—or that female college students typically pick academically less challenging majors (the humanities in contrast to math and science) than males does not seem to have occurred to FAIR.
FAIR insists that the dip in SAT scores to indict the No Child Left Behind law (even though that law is mainly aimed at children in lower grades, not high-school students) but also all “high-stakes” examinations, as its press release on the 2009 SAT scores states. The SAT test has been a particular target of FAIR, which gleefully tracks an ever-increasing number of colleges, now more than 830, that have made reporting of applicants’ SAT scores optional. That amounts to killing the messenger—the SAT messenger reporting that sub-par public schools (even public schools showered with dollars) and dysfunctional cultural trends have stunted the intellectual development of many of the nation’s young people, especially those belonging to disadvantaged minorities. Restoring educational and cultural standards would likely do more for them than getting rid of the SAT.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

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