SAT scores hit new low. Public’s ability to think critically tested.

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It’s true.  The class of 2012 has the dubious distinction of having the lowest average SAT scores in forty years.  An anomaly?  No.

Last year’s seniors simply followed an American tradition of SAT decline since the 1970s.  Worth a maximum of 800 points, last year’s average reading score was 496, one point lower than the average from 2011, and 34 points lower than the average score in 1972.

Now, quick–without reading further: What do you think this means?  Form an opinion.  Consider why this might be.  Have something?  Good.

Now, if you will indulge me, I wonder if you might also consider an only very slightly related exercise designed by Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and author of Thinking Fast and Slow:

“An individual has been described by a neighbor as follows: ‘Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful, but with little interest in people or in the world of reality.  A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail.’  Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer?”

Most people will immediately agree that Steve’s personality traits would serve him well as a stereotypical librarian.  Kahneman points out, however, that rarely do people also consider that there are over 20 male farmers for every single male librarian and that, “Because there are so many more farmers, it is almost certain that more ‘meek and tidy’ souls will be found on tractors than at library information desks.”

In his book, Kahneman goes on to explain that more often than not, humans are not logical creatures.  In fact, it appears that we are loath to think critically when crafting our conclusions.  His research has shown that, most of the time, we instead rely on simplifying heuristics, or rules of thumb, even when forming important or complicated conclusions.  Even more startling, Kahneman’s research has shown time and again that our reliance on these heuristics often leads us seriously astray.

Now back to the SAT test.  Remember that opinion I asked you to form?  How do you think you arrived at that?

In addition to understanding that the average SAT score has, for years, been declining, it might also be helpful to learn that more graduating seniors than ever before (some 1.66 million) took the SAT in 2012.

In addition, “Nearly half were minorities and about a quarter reported that English was not exclusively their first language,” writes Emma Brown in a recent Washington Post article.  “More than a quarter of public school test-takers—27 percent—had family income low enough to qualify for a fee waiver, and more than a third—36 percent— reported that their parents had not gone to college.”

In 1926, the first year the SAT was administered, only a few thousand affluent-bound-for-Ivy-League-students took the test.

Beyond that, questions abound about the SAT’s legitimacy as a predictor of college readiness at all.  Brian Zucker, head of an enrollment-management consulting firm, measures the correlation between SAT scores and freshman GPA.  Typically, on a scale from 0 to 1, he gets results between .03 and .14.  As far as using SAT to predict college readiness, “I might as well measure their shoe size,” says Zucker.

Helen F. Ladd, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, shares another perspective.  She says the No Child Left Behind law, a federal initiative to raise test scores over a decade ago and crafted by President George W. Bush, fails to address the realities of today’s students.

“Some kids are coming to school hungry, some without the health care they need.  If we really want to do something to close achievement gaps and raise test scores, we have to stop putting our heads in the sand and start addressing this issue.”

When it comes to the complexities of educating our children, relying on a deep understanding of the stories behind the test scores–instead of simplifying rules of thumb–would be a great place to start.

Founder of, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: .

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  1. ah, you got me! I love how you had me form an opinion so I was completely invested in the article to see if I was correct (only partially so). I always learn something on your site – thanks Chris ~ another great post.