Monday, September 19, 2011

Reformers Puzzled: SAT Scores Decline in 2011

That's my bicycle at the top of Tioga Pass,
coming into Yosemite National Park from the east.
You pedal uphill for twelve miles and gain 3,100 feet in elevation.

I'VE BEEN BUSY BICYCLING ACROSS THE UNITED STATES all summer and haven't had time to post anything on my teaching blog. 

The weeks and months are ticking by; and we're now less than three years removed from a time when reformers promise they can take us to a state of absolute academic nirvana, when every child in America will be proficient in reading and math. 

By now don't you almost have to assume the first sweet fruits of success are ripe for picking?

So how is the "big reform push" going?

I was heading out the door to run a few errands last week--catch up on chores that went untended while I was pedaling--when I passed the TV and heard Andrea Mitchell on CNN mention declining SAT scores. Mitchell went on to say that Michelle Rhee would be on after a commercial break to explain.

God. Not Rhee again. That woman's sour mug can be seen on TV more often than reruns of Law and Order.

I was in a hurry and didn't get to hear Rhee spout. But I'm sure it was fun. Remember her? The woman with the plan to save education? The lady who blames teachers for all the nation's academic failings? The Joan of Arc who was going to save the Washington, D. C. schools with a relentless focus on standardized testing data?

I wish I'd had time to listen to what she said, because SAT scores fell again for U. S. high school seniors in 2011. It's enough to make education reformers weep.

After almost a decade of "reforms" under No Child Left Behind, after all the preaching of geniuses like Rhee and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, here's where we land:  Critical reading scores sagged three points in 2011, to 497, the lowest on record.

Writing scores fell two points to 489.

Math was down one:  to 514.

Since 2002, when the standardized-testing craze swept America's schools and education experts began acting like zombies in an old science fiction movie--all promising improvement if only we followed them, followed them, followed them--we have been in slow decline. 

We are down from 504 in critical reading to 497. 

We are down in math from 516 to 514. 

And in five short years, since the writing test was first instituted, seniors have lost eight points, down from 497.

If we listen to the likes of Rhee, Duncan, Joel I. Klein (former chancellor of the New York City public schools) and Governor John Kasich in Ohio this really can't be happening. We have more charter schools like they wanted, more vouchers and way, way more testing. Experts have written enough shiny new "standards" to keep real teachers busy for the next century. And when students fail to meet "standards" we have fired more and more teachers. In Ohio, where average SAT scores are a hundred points higher than nationally, the governor has decided that the best way to insure improved scores is to break teachers' unions and take away tenure.

SO WHAT COULD POSSIBLY BE WRONG? We've listened to these kinds of people for ten years and we're going nowhere. 

Here's the first problem:  We allow school reform to be driven by people like Rhee and governors like Kasich, Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and Chris Christie (New Jersey), who either went to private schools, send their children to private schools, or both. 

These are people who want to fix the schools they didn't even care to attend. 

Secondly, we listen to people like Rhee and Duncan who have only the briefest classroom experience, or like Klein, none at all, and lack true insight.  It's an odd trend, really.  If you placed the top ten names in education reform today and all U. S. Secretaries of Education end to end, from the founding of the Department of Education in 1979 until this very moment, their classroom service would not equal one thirty-year veteran in some elementary school in Peoria or Pocatello. 

Perhaps most importantly, we have spent the last decade focusing on teachers and measuring what they do and writing paper standards

We haven't demanded anything from students.

This idea that if only we get better teachers into classrooms then every student can be a success is shallow and simplistic. It's like saying, "If only ministers gave better sermons sin would disappear."  It's as if  a bad football team could go undefeated if only the coach drew up better plays, even if players never practiced.

Until we have to courage to ask students to do more all talk of "raising standards" is just pontificating and puffing hot air. 

OUR LEADING POLITICIANS AND REFORMERS don't know this, and don't know they don't know this. So we're going nowhere fast.

1 comment:

  1. I've felt like all the SAT seems to test is how good a student is at taking the SAT, although I don't have data to back this up.

    One thing I am confused about is the significance of a one point drop in SAT scores. I realize that this is a mean, but I feel like more useful data to report is a histogram of the spread of scores as raw number and percentage of test-takers.

    In agreement with your post, from the SAT press release about the 2011 scores: "Media and others often rank states, districts and schools on the basis of SAT® scores despite repeated warnings that such rankings are inappropriate. The SAT is a strong indicator of trends in the college-bound population, but it should never be used alone for such comparisons because demographics and other nonschool factors can have a strong effect on scores. If ranked, schools and states that encourage students to apply to college may be penalized because scores tend to decline with a rise in percentage of test-takers."

    A former student annoyed with testing when many, including myself, don't understand the data they provide.