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Why SAT Scores Are Down—And Why it Matters

Thanks to a narrowed curriculum and test prep, kids aren't learning the critical thinking skills they need to do well on the SAT or in college.

Are high school students college and career-ready? Not according to the latest data from the College Board, the makers of the SAT. Average scores for each of the three test sections declined this year, continuing a downward trend. Average critical reading portion of the test fell to 497 out of 800, the lowest level in the history of the SAT. Math scores fell to an average of 514 and the writing score dropped to 489.

The College Board says the downward trajectory is due to more students—and a more diverse population from varied academic backgrounds—taking the test, which they say is a good thing overall. Indeed, of the 1.65 million SAT takers in 2011, 44 percent were non-white students, 36 percent were the first in their family to go to college and 27 percent spoke a language other than English at home. But are declining scores really an inevitable result of democratizing the SAT?

Not according to Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a nonprofit that "works to end the misuses and flaws of standardized testing." Schaeffer says the real reason SAT scores have declined for the past five years is because of the detrimental impacts of the No Child Left Behind Act.

NCLB's narrow focus on reading and math test scores drives what's taught in many U.S. schools, particularly those serving minority and low-income students. "Education is dumbed down so that those kids do nothing more than a series of worksheets," says Schaeffer, "and that doesn't translate to the SAT."

That's because the SAT isn't a curriculum-linked test—one that requires memorizing facts. Students need strong critical thinking skills to perform well, and those aren't skills that are part of state-mandated standardized test prep. What's worse, those same skills are the ones that translate to college and intellectually challenging careers, so much more than a SAT score is at stake.

Income has long been known as "one of the strongest predictors of test scores of all types. Well-off families, Schaeffer says, "can buy a private school education or buy themselves into a community where the tests are not a dominant factor." Unsurprisingly, cumulative SAT scores for students from families earning more than $200,000 a year continue to rise. But without a shift in what and how everyone else is taught to everyone else, those SAT scores may well continue to decline.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Fort Worth Squatch

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