The New York Times reported last Thursday that SAT scores dropped to a new low because, “About 30 percent of those who took the SAT were black, Hispanic or American Indian, groups whose scores have stubbornly remained lower than those of whites and Asians.”
Well gosh, it certainly seems like some more explanation is needed. Are we supposed to believe black and brown kids are to blame for the dumbing down of America? That can’t be right.
Let’s pull apart what’s really going on.
First, more children of color are taking the test – which is a good thing. Since you pretty much need an SAT or ACT score to get into college, more kids taking the test means more kids of color are trying to continue their educations after high school. This is consistent with data showing that the high school dropout rate for African-American and Latino students has fallen considerably over the last three decades. If more kids of color are taking the test than previously, these are not just honors students anymore but a much larger range of academic achievers. This lowers the average score.
Second, while the College Board which administers the test has tried to disprove that studying for the SAT makes a big difference, this is just silly. Kids who have taken the Preliminary SAT (PSAT) twice before taking the SAT do much better than kids who just take the SAT.
The SAT is like any other test, if you study for it, you do better. The problem is that the primary way to study for the SAT is to take a commercial tutoring program like Stanley Kaplan or Princeton Review. The cost for the cheapest such program is $499. If education is the new civil rights struggle, then consider this $499 a poll tax, keeping black and brown children from scoring well on the test and ultimately hindering their education.
Third, our schools simply are not good enough at educating the poor of all races and children of color in particular. The gap in test scores between black and brown children on one hand and white children on the other is called the “achievement gap.” This gap closed consistently and significantly in the 1970s and 1980s, but then grew in the 1990s and appears to be possibly slowly closing again.
Unfortunately, children of color are more likely to attend schools where a majority of the student body is poor, and the resources shifted to remedial instruction and discipline are greater. Similarly, black and brown children more often attend low performing schools that offer fewer advanced classes in reading, writing and math – exactly what the SAT tests. Even in schools that do offer advanced classes, black and brown kids are not being successfully guided to take them as often as white students.
Fourth, the federal No Child Left Behind law uses standardized testing to evaluate schools. While the law’s success is much debated, it has done one thing remarkably well. Before NCLB, we spent too much time blaming poverty, broken families, parents and worst of all black and brown children for the achievement gap.
Because of NCLB, we now know that a small number of schools do very well closing the achievement gap. This makes it harder to justify schools that don’t. Policy makers now talk not about failing kids but about failing schools, and try to hold superintendents, principals and teachers more accountable for student outcomes.
Promising models are out there. New Haven, Connecticut, for example, negotiated a deal with its teachers union where test scores are one of three indicators of teacher performance, along with classroom practice and teacher values. The union and district came up with a support system for low scoring teachers to give them a year to improve while they get help. Most do improve. When New Haven let 34 teachers go last week for failing to improve, the union president stood behind the effort.
There are no quick fixes. This model and others like it across the country need rigorous evaluation to see whether they produce better outcomes for kids. Nationwide, teacher assessment and support should be bolstered with strong curriculum and a fair distribution of dollars.
We need to improve education from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade and we need to make sure that kids are equally prepared to take the SAT. Then we can see the SAT as an indicator of student achievement. Until then the SAT is primarily a test of the fairness of the American education system – a test we have not yet passed.
Henry Fernandez is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress focusing on State and Municipal Policy.