If you're looking to the most recent round of college entrance tests as a barometer for United States educational fitness, keep a No. 2 pencil and a calculator close at hand: The important lessons are not close to the surface.
The short take on results is that test scores are fairly flat - despite an intense period of educational reform - while student grades are going up. And the issue for educators is: What do these results really tell us about how kids are learning?
Both national testing organizations insisted that the message was promising. Last week, the College Board reported the highest average scores in mathematics in 27 years (512) on the SAT, a point above last year's level, although the average SAT verbal score (505) was stagnant. On Aug. 18, the rival American College Test in Iowa City, Iowa, reported a ninth straight year of either constant scores or slight improvements, a trend ACT president Richard Ferguson characterized as "unprecedented."
"Stay the course. That is the message America's teachers should get from the new SAT scores.... What we are doing is working," responded Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, the No. 1 teachers union.
But analysts caution that there are disparities in the data that signal deeper concerns for American educators.
One is the simple observation that the College Board recentered its test scores in 1994, so that what had been the average verbal score of 423 was ratcheted up to the official mean score of 500. "Recentering leads people to think we are back to where we were in the 1960s, and we're not," says Diane Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who has studied the decline in SAT test scores.
But she credits the SAT with signaling problems in the teaching of English, where student scores are close to record lows.
"For a long time, the dominant trend in the teaching of English has been that you can learn things your own way - that kids could pick up new words from the movies. Tests don't work this way," Ms. Ravitch says. "If you're teaching a foreign language, people agree that kids should study both vocabulary and grammar, but for teachers of English, grammar is still in retreat," she adds.
Another disparity is the gap between test performance and student grades. In the last 10 years, the number of students reporting A averages has jumped from 28 to 38 percent, while SAT scores for the same group dropped some 12 points on verbal and 3 points on math.
"We don't know why grades are rising. The trend may reflect positive changes in education, but it may also reflect greater focus on personal qualities instead of academic achievement," says Donald Stewart, president of the College Board, which is based in Princeton, N.J., and administers the SAT. The College Board has launched its own investigation of grade inflation.
The A-glut is also at odds with recent international tests, which signal that US seniors score significantly below international norms in math and science. Even the most advanced US students performed at low levels in advanced mathematics and at especially low levels in physics, according to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, released last February.
"TIMSS raised real questions about the quality of the curriculum [in US schools]," says Howard Everson, chief research scientist for the College Board. "It looks like our curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep."
The whole notion of testing took a beating in the 1990s, as critics hammered away on alleged bias against women and minorities. But the push for higher standards and the bewildering variety of student transcripts and evaluations, spurred by the spread of home schooling and alternative schools, have given standardized tests a new impetus. "There was a retreat from testing in the '90s, but it is reescalating. Tests are becoming both the measure of the new standards and even the real definition of the standard," says Monty Neill, executive director of the Cambridge, Mass.-based National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
In the most recent SAT test, for example, men outscored women on the standardized test by 7 points in the verbal and 35 points in math, even though women had higher grades and took more year-long academic courses. College Board officials explain the gap by arguing that women still take fewer advanced math courses. The gender gap in the ACT is much less evident.
Other significant results from the tests:
* Minority students accounted for a record one-third of those taking the SAT, but many are poorly prepared for college.
* Those aiming to go into teaching scored the lowest in average SAT scores (22 points below average in verbal scores, 483, and 32 points in math, 480).
* Both the SAT and the ACT scores show a strong correlation between family income and student test scores.
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A Winter Walk
By Andrew Thomas Caldie
Grade 7, Green Bay, Wis.
In the Sept. 1 issue of the Learning section, the name of a writer on the teen essay page appeared incorrectly. We have reprinted it above as it should have looked.
In the same issue, the manufacturer of Crayola crayons was misidentified. The company's name is Binney & Smith.