Recently announced SAT scores for 2003 prompted the College Board's president and others to rejoice at the progress being made in the nation's high schools. The gains were modest, to be sure. Verbal scores for women increased by only one point, and men's scores rose three points. Both men and women enjoyed a gain of three points in mathematics. Still, the math scores were the highest in more than 35 years. A record 1.4 million high school students took the examination.
Not everyone was jubilant. The Center for Education Reform, a Washington non-profit group that monitors SAT examinations, issued a statement contending that the examination had been dumbed down in recent years and that scores were inflated. The statement noted that students were given more time to take the math test and were able to use calculators on some questions. "The news is actually pretty bad," Center officials declared. The saddest result of the recent SATs is the continuation of the gap between whites and most minorities (described by some journalists as a gap between rich and poor). African-American math scores, for example, were down a point from the previous year; as were the scores of American Indians and Hispanic and Latinos.
Overall math scores are at 519 out of 800; African-Americans scored 426. Overall verbal scores are now 507 out of 800; African-Americans are at 432 (up one point from the previous year). Mexican Americans scored 457 in math (unchanged), and 448 (up two points) in verbal. In sharp contrast, Whites are at 534 in math (up a point) and 529 in verbal (up two points). Asian Americans are at 575 in math (up six points) and 508 in verbal (up seven points).
The most provocative evaluation of the test scores came from Seppy Basili, vice president for learning and assessment at Kaplan, Inc., a test-preparation company. He declared, "If the last ten years [of SAT scores] are any indication, affirmative action is going to be even more important" in the future. What could he have meant? That minorities should be granted favors by educators and even employers because of their lower scores? Is he arguing that lower scores require rewards at the expense of those successful in the examinations? Reverse discrimination in the frantic national race to gain admittance to select colleges and universities is well documented and has been sanctioned by the United States Supreme Court, albeit by the barest of margins.
Is Mr. Basili now saying that such discrimination should increase now that minority students are failing to keep up with the gains being made by others? If so, is he basing this judgment on the assumption that racial discrimination continues to produce the lower test scores, and thus we are all to blame and must pay the consequences of our sin by being denied equality? I would argue that the gap in test scores should teach us another lesson. I think it urgent to create a national effort to confront and somehow change a culture, enjoyed by millions of minorities and others, that dismisses serious education, fosters militant anti-intellectualism, and exalts the lowest forms of personal behavior and popular entertainment. It is extremely difficult if not impossible for teachers and professors to convey the joys of learning to those who see no point to schooling and long for little more in life than sensual gratification and cash.
The exaltation of the icons of this rock bottom culture by the media at all levels in recent years is surely harmful to untold millions of young people and to the nation 's future. Walk into a classroom, as I have many times, and begin lecturing to students dressed as clowns and prostitutes, proud of their tattoos and nose clips, eager only to clap on the headphones at the end of the hour and be surrounded by screaming Rock and rap stars. They want no part of what you have to say, and see themselves as prisoners and victims. Where in their entire lives do they see people who are thoughtful, educated, and enthralled with the highest cultural expressions of our civilization?
If educators truly want to raise SAT and ACT scores, they must not only raise their academic standards, as some already have, but speak out and take action against the popular culture that hinders and prohibits their ability to bring knowledge and wisdom to young people. And educators can't do this supremely important task alone. In a nod in the direction of this major problem, President Bill Clinton once endorsed school uniforms. Government and industry at all levels need to look at the national test scores, think how high they might realistically be, and begin taking steps to encourage learning, personal responsibility, integrity, and hard work for all young Americans. It may not be "cool." It may be "dated." But it will certainly be wise.