Choos the larger number

As I observed in this space last week, once again the annual SAT scores are in. These are tests taken by high-school students who are wannabe college students, administered by the College Board, a New York-based non-profit, which admonishes results-readers not to engage in comparative rankings bv State because, as should be obvious, the higher the percentage of high-schoolers taking the test, the more likely that less-well-prepared and/or capable students are seated in the test-room chairs and dragging down the state average, which explains why, as was detailed last week, Mississippi with 566 verbal and 551 math (and only 4 percent test-takers)far out-performed Connecticut with 509 verbal and 510 math (and 82 percent test-takers) and with less than half the annual per-pupil spending and with somewhat larger class sizes. Among those who defied the College Board admonition: editors at the Rutland Herald, who proudly wrote (29 Aug 08) that the average SAT scoresare higher on average than other New England states and only three states nationwide had higher math scores than Vermont this year but were careful not to point out that Mississippi was one of them, or why. Vermont scores were 521 in Critical Reading, 507 in Writing (for a Verbal average of 514) and 523 in Math, for a Math-Verbal total of 1037 and a three-test total of 1551; a student who maxes all three sections gets a 2400. US students on average achieved a 1511 or two points under a barely-passing 65 percent. The 1551 achievement of Vermont students comes in at only two points higher, also just under a barely-passing 65 percent. How you view these results depends on who you are and where your paycheck comes from. The State Education Department also defies the College Board admonition and talks proudly about rankings, while calling these Vermont scores strong results. Brandon Superintendent William Mathis in the same Herald article says Vermont is an incredibly scoring state. He doesnt say that Vermont is only two points above the national average, and got there by spending well over $13 thousand per pupil annually versus a national average of barely $9 thousand. Researcher/writer Charles Murray, in the current issue of The American, takes a less Pollyanna-ish view, citing the College Boards own estimate that a students needs a Math-Verbal total of at least 1180 to be college-ready and have a 65 percent chance of graduating once there. Neither the average US student nor the average Vermont student has posted a score meeting such minimal expectations. Neither strong nor incredible, Id say. You can note that 1037 is indeed a lower number than 1180, meaning that the average Vermont student-test-taker is 43 points short of a full academic load, in term of readiness-for-college. In like manner, The Wall Street Journal sees little cause for such self-congratulatory claims of educator accomplishment: its headline (27 August) reads Class of 08 Fails to Lift SAT Scores and the jump-head uses the adjective Unimpressive. Underlying these unimpressive numbers is an unpleasant fact, reported by the Cato Institute in a 2005 study (not much has changed since then, in SAT scores or any other tests such as NAEP) which is that public high schools dont typically do a good job at preparing their students for college. Thirty-nine percent of the students themselves say so, as do great majorities of college instructors. Thirty-one percent of new matriculates were required to take at least one remedial course in their freshman year, to make up for what their high schools failed to teach them (or instruction they chose to disregard, you decide). All of which explains why, for upwardly-mobile parents, spending household budget money on special test-prep instructional sessions is just about mandatory; even as the Journal reports, flat results fuel debate over costly test-preparation courses. The Journal doesnt mention, but should have, that home-schooled students typically far outpace their publicly-educated peers when they sit for the SATs; nor does its article mention, as other earlier reports in its pages have done, the impressive nature of public-school testing decades ago, when academic standards were higher at both the secondary and post-secondary education levels. Former Vermonter Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.

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