Dan Thomasson: Report confirms SATs flawed indicator

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The good news is that more teenagers hoping to be college bound are taking the SATs. The bad news is that the scores on these bellwethers for predictability of success have dropped with the exception of a few of the nation's wealthiest and most educated counties.

In fact, according to the national press, the reading scores have declined to a 40-year low. Is anyone really surprised considering the mania of today's teens for electronic communication in an entirely new abbreviated language called texting? How would they know about such things as sentence structure, vocabulary and meaning when they are responding in a run-together series of OMG and LOL statements? It's enough to make one twitter.

Who really reads these days? American juveniles from every economic level spend thousands of hours a year before screens playing games. Much of their social intercourse takes place with networks of fellow players who may live miles away and keep score about how many monsters or enemies they can shoot down or eliminate. The adventures they once marveled at in books like the Tarzan series and Voyage to the Center of the Earth seem mundane and uninteresting.

There is also nothing startling about the confirmation that the higher the income of the test-taker's family, the better the chances for success. It has been that way since this examination was first established in 1926 to screen applicants for elite Ivy League schools. Not until after World War II did many schools use it to deal with burgeoning enrollments.

The correlation between wealth and achievement is simple to explain. It mainly comes from the fact that those families with the most wealth can afford for their children not only to take the test multiple times but also to provide them with considerable expensive instruction before and between. These youngsters also grow up in more educated environments where one or both parents have college degrees.

The newest reports show a decline since 2006 in scores among every racial group, except those of Asian descent. The College Board said 57 percent of the test takers did not score high enough to indicate likely success in college, according to The Washington Post.

A reason cited for the drop in overall scores is that college hopefuls from lower incomes are being exposed to the test that by any stretch of the imagination is an elitist exercise. This, among other things, is why more and more colleges have turned to the ACT as a more equitable means of determining admissions. For the first time, those colleges requiring the ACT have exceeded those relying solely or partially on the SAT. There are other problems long ignored by the College Board that administers the SATs in dreaded four-hour sessions. Doing well can be attributed to learning how to take the exam, not overall knowledge.

Longtime critics of the SATs also argue that if they were a true test of what one learns through 12 years of schooling, they would not be subject to short-term improvement, which of course they are, as an entire cottage industry in pre-test lessons can attest.

There is also the fact that many of those who perform poorly on the exam even though their grades reflect a high degree of learning do so because of pressures to score high. They simply don't test well under the circumstances. We all know students whose grades in college are far better than what one would have assumed from their SAT scores.

Is the fact that less than half of those taking the examination actually match the prediction for college success as alarming as it seems? Perhaps. But once again there are and have been serious flaws in this examination as there are in any standardized tests supposedly capable of measuring an entire student body. Not everyone responds the same. The SATs were designed to provide a balance to grading systems that differ widely from one school district to another. It often has just reflected what could reasonably have been expected.

Youngsters from acclaimed suburban public systems like Fairfax County, Va., are highly successful. Those from poorer, inner city systems aren't. How extraordinary!

(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)

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