Scoppe: What SAT scores really tell us, and what they really don’t tell us

Associate EditorSeptember 29, 2013 

Cindi Ross Scoppe

— THERE IS absolutely no question that reading is the foundation of learning. Absolutely no question that our schools need to do a better job teaching kids to read. Absolutely no question that state Education Superintendent Mick Zais is right to make that his top priority.

And whenever we get new information that illustrates the need for improvement, Dr. Zais is absolutely right to point that out and remind us that we have work to do.

But not every new test result makes that point. Some of them make other points. Or no major policy point at all.

Consider the SAT.

In announcing the latest SAT scores this past week, Dr. Zais said, in full: “Like the other college admission test ACT, the SAT is not a measure of school effectiveness. However, within the student population taking the SAT is another data point confirming a troubling trend: there is a wide reading gap between South Carolina and the nation.”

“Addressing the reading gap in elementary school must be our top priority because reading is fundamental to everything else in a student’s education. If students cannot read, they will not succeed in school. To accomplish this goal, we must transform education from a one-size-fits-all system to one that delivers a personalized and customized education to each student.”

I certainly appreciate Dr. Zais’ reminder about what the SAT is not. But while his narrative is compelling, and his prescription generally sound, if not quite complete, he misdiagnoses the patient’s condition.

The fact that South Carolina trails the nation on SAT scores is not a trend, which is something that involves movement. Yes, we trail the nation, in reading and writing and arithmetic, and have for as long as the SAT has been administered. But to the extent that there is a trend, it is just the opposite: Our gap in reading, and math and writing, is closing. In fact, the gap is the smallest in … reading.

It is so small that if we looked at SAT scores the way we look at most scores, we wouldn’t even think of it as a gap.

Out of a possible score of 800 on each section, our public school students — the only ones we can take any credit or blame for — scored an average 479 in reading, 484 in math and 460 in writing, for a total of 1,423. The national averages were 491 for reading, 503 for math and 480 for writing, for a total of 1,474.

If we convert those numbers to the more traditional 100-point scale that we’re accustomed to, they come out to 60 percent in reading, compared to a national average of 61 percent; 61 percent in math, compared to a national average of 63 percent; and 58 percent in writing, compared to a national average of 60 percent.

Take a moment to digest those numbers: Our SAT score in reading is 1 percentage point below the national average. Our overall SAT score is 2 percentage points below the national average. That’s about where it’s been for the past decade; when I started covering state government in 1988, it was 4 percentage points below the national average.

I’m always hesitant to write things like this, for fear of sounding like an apologist, or at best complacent. I worry about that even more when I point out that the SAT is about the worst tool around to compare how states do teaching kids, because that comes off sounding like I think our state does a good enough job. It clearly does not. But these are things we must acknowledge if we’re going to have an informed discussion about the SAT, and come to informed policy positions based on those scores.

The main reason the SAT is such a bad tool for comparing states is that it compares self-selected groups of students. The best students in every state take the SAT, because the best colleges expect them to. But when you move below the top students, the participation rate varies wildly, from a low of 2 percent in North Dakota to 100 percent in Maine. This year, 64 percent of our high school students took the SAT. Only 15 states had higher participation rates.

I have no idea why so many South Carolinians insist on taking the SAT, when nowhere near that many have any hopes of getting into a college that requires SAT scores. But those individual, in many ways irrational, decisions mean that when we line up scores state by state, the top 64 percent of S.C. students are competing against the top 2 percent of North Dakota’s students. It means the top 64 percent of S.C. students are competing against the top 4 percent of students from Wisconsin, the top 49 percent of Oregon students, and on and on. Of course our scores are lower.

Looked at that way — that is, considering the full context of the scores — it seems more than a little ridiculous to wring our hands over the fact that the national average is two percentage points higher than the S.C. average. It seems more like something to celebrate.

There are more than enough reasons for us to worry about how well we’re doing educating children. More than enough reasons to insist on policies that will reduce the chance that S.C. students make it to high school, or even middle school, without learning to read.

SAT scores are not among those reasons.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com.

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