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The Turnaround in S.A.T. Scores Gives Little Reason to Cheer

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Reports of the first upturn in average Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores in many years have been greeted like a long-overdue spring thaw. But there are plenty of good reasons for shying away from the cheerful conclusion that the better scores signify generally better schooling.

There is no doubt that in this nation of nearly 16,000 school districts, some local improvements have been achieved. But the dominant message from the SAT's is that, even with the latest gains in scores, today's students are performing nowhere near the levels of their counterparts of the 1960's and 1970's.

Let's look at the numbers: In 1963, the average sat math score for college-bound high-school seniors was 502; from then on, with minor variation, math scores went into a 19-year slump, dropping last year to 466. The good news for this year turns out to be a one point increase, to 467--still 35 points below the 1963 level.

On the verbal tests, the average national score was 478 in 1963; by last year, it had dropped to 424. The good news in this category is that the scores have gone up two points--to where they are 52 points below the level of 19 years ago.

Today's test-takers thus clearly lag far behind the students of less than 20 years ago. But what must also be recognized is that the new scores--low as they are--may actually have been inflated by increasingly popular coaching programs that provide a lot of assistance that was previously scarce or altogether unavailable for those taking the SAT's.

The College Entrance Examination Board, which sponsors the tests, tends to minimize the effects of prepping to improve scores, but many high-school counselors and swarms of students strongly believe that tutoring and practice are bound to produce better results. And respected educational researchers insist that they are right, and point out, too, that the main business of the College Board is selling the SAT's.

Although there is a lot of scholarly controversy over the cause and significance of the persistent decline in sat scores, there is really no need to look very far for explanations. Yes, TV has cut into homework time, more students from traditionally low-scoring minority groups are now college-bound and taking the tests, and so forth. But towering over all of these and other fragmentary explanations is an ongoing decline in quality in large segments of public education. The scientists, as usual, keep better figures than their counterparts in the humanities, so we have a better view of that part of the picture, but it may be assumed--as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities comment-ed recently--that verbal skills are also suffering in the schools.

In any case, since 1970, high-school graduation requirements have declined to the point where only one-third of the nation's school districts require more than one year of math or science; approximately one-third the science and math teachers in public schools are not trained for teaching those subjects, and enrollments for training in these subjects continue to slump.

Meanwhile, in pursuit of economy, the Reagan Administration has eliminated the only federal program for upgrading the skills of elementary- and high-school science and math teachers. The "savings" add up to $40 million.

Gratitude is in order for all signs of educational improvement--even very small ones. But it would be foolish to conclude that so slight an upturn in the SAT's signifies that American education is at last on the mend.

Vol. 02, Issue 05, Page 19

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