Thursday, November 14, 2013

School Reforms Backfire? SAT and ACT Test Scores Stagnate or Decline

The last decade has been filled with school reform. So, how are these reforms working? Our leaders in education—I mean people who give advice rather than teach—have been pushing standardized tests! Yep, our leaders love them. 

The testing companies love them too.

Thirteen years have passed since Congress enacted No Child Left Behind. Remember that great law! One bold promise wrapped in 1,100 pages of jargon and buried in bureaucratic detail. You know the promise: Every child would be proficient in reading and math by—well—2014. Remember all the tests tied to that law? Okay, those tests are gone. No problem! We now have Common Core and another round of fresh tests coming our way.

By now we might be excused for expecting the ripe fruits of reform to be ready for picking. Let’s see how America’s college-bound kids are doing.

First, consider American College Testing (ACT) scores for the last two decades.

Um…average reading scores for the 2012 graduating class were no higher than scores for the class of 1995. In science the class of 2012 did no better than the class of 1994. The average English score in 1999, three years before passage of No Child Left Behind, was the same as today. Only math scores are up in any statistically significant way.

How about writing? Writing ability seems to be plunging, perhaps because “standardized writing” is hard even to imagine.


Maybe testing helped close the gender gap. Nope it hasn’t. The gender gap has been consistent for years, hovering just around .2 annually. Males had an average composite score of 21.2 in 2012, females 21.0.

What about a secondary promise of No Child Left Behind? That a focus on testing would eliminate the racial gap?

Also not working!

The average score by race in 2012—which correlates almost perfectly with average poverty rates by racial group—is as follows:

African-American:                            17.0
American-Indian:                              18.4
White                                               22.4
Hispanic                                           18.9
Asian                                                23.6
Pacific Islander                                 19.8
Two or More Races                         21.4
No Response                                   21.3


What do the figures for the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT’s) show? Huge gains you figure. All these great reforms! Let’s check those gains out.


Well, isn’t that depressing! You almost get the feeling reformers who push standardized testing don’t know what learning is really about.

Math scores for seniors interested in attending colleges and universities are down 9 points since NCLB was made law. Reading scores are down 5. Writing scores again seem to be falling fastest. The writing test was new in 200d and scores are down 9 in six years.

How about the “racial and gender gaps” that No Child Left Behind was supposed to fix? What does the latest evidence show? Good news, I guess.

Male and female students are getting worse scores, but doing it equally. Total scores for both sexes are down 20 points.

With the exception of one racial group, all are performing equally. That is:  scores are in decline.White kids are down (-6 points). So are African-American kids (-13), Mexican American kids (-16), Puerto Rican kids (-9) and Other Hispanic kids (-17).

It’s a debacle.

Only Asian, Asian-American and Pacific Islander kids (all one category for SAT) are doing better. Oddly enough, their scores have increased, in the three tested areas, by a combined 45 points.


How are all the reforms working? Well, terrible, I think you might say. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing adds this note of warning: “Doubling down on unsuccessful policies with more high-stakes K-12 testing, as Common Core exam proponents propose, is an exercise in futility, not meaningful school improvement.”

See also:


  1. Standardized tests are very important for a child's education and future. I don't think many students realize this because schools do not reinforce it enough. I hired an outside tutor to help prepare my son because I did not think his school was doing so and I want him to have the opportunity to attend a top college if he chooses to do so.

    1. Good luck to you and your son. I believe most of what students need to learn does not show up on standardized tests.

      For example, I would require kids in my class to read four books and total at least 1,000 pages for outside reading in history. I gave them hundreds of choices, because what I wanted was to turn kids into lifelong readers. So some of the girls read Gone With The Wind, others read Night or Maus, both short works but classics on the Holocaust, others read Black Hawk Down, or Company Aytch, excellent war stories. Ah, now the rub: how do we test this? What standard information do we need to gain? And, no, a history teacher gets no credit for helping kids learn how to read.

      A history teacher has a standardized test asking questions (here in Ohio, at least) about mercantilism, where is the Gobi Desert, and Shay's Rebellion. Most adults I've asked about those three don't have a clue. Or: What do you know about Songhai trade?

      So far, the people who write the "standards" have either set them very low or bogged teachers down in trivial detail.

      I hope you are right and the next round of tests under Common Core helps. I absolutely fear it will not. I have seen state standardized tests tried and found wanting (late 80s) and then tests tied to No Child Left Behind. Here in Ohio the subtest in history barely survived child birth before the bureaucrats killed it dead.

      As a bonus, after a decade of beating up teachers and students, ACT scores for the college bound are stagnant and SAT scores are down in all three areas. Test scores, of course, are easy to cite to prove various points. That's another reason I'm skeptical; but ACT and SAT scores are not showing progress in education at all.

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