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The Monitor's View

Lessons for Obama's education goals in the SAT

The shakiness of the college admissions test is a warning about setting national standards for states.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / June 11, 2009



Test time: Which type of worker – those with college diplomas or those without – has suffered a higher rate of layoffs during this recession?

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Answer: Those with no degree – two to three times more.

No wonder President Obama wants every American to have at least one year of higher education. He also wants the US to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

To achieve those goals won't be easy, and much depends on how students are tested.

His education secretary, Arne Duncan, first wants to make sure more students graduate from high school with a degree that will meet tough federal standards in order to help them be accepted by a college.

Alas, no federal standard now exists – despite the 2001 No Child Left Behind law that required states to meet goals set by the US Department of Education. The Bush administration decided to let each state set its own standards.

The result, says Mr. Duncan, was "extreme variation" and a "dumbing down" of state standards under pressure from politicians. Instead, "I want to be much tighter on the goal … college-ready, career-ready, international benchmark standards, very high bar," he told reporters at a June 10 breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor.

Attempts to set a nationwide education standard have been made in the past.

Just this month, 46 states agreed to move toward uniform learning goals in reading and mathematics for public schools. (Science was left out – which is the very area that the US needs to focus on to be more competitive.) The effort was led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. A previous attempt at standards was tried by teacher groups.

Why is a national standard so difficult to achieve?

One clue is to look at the nationwide test widely used since 1926 to judge whether a student is ready for college – the SAT.

More than 2 million students take it each year. Yet in recent years, an estimated 500 colleges have dropped the SAT as a requirement for admissions.

It was originally designed to measure "aptitude" (thus, the "A" in SAT). But that notion of assigning a single set of numbers to an innate ability for learning has been dropped.

The name SAT now stands for nothing, while the descriptive words that come right after it – such as "critical reading" or "reasoning" – indicate the type of testing – or, rather, the latest ideas of what needs to be tested.

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