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SAT Scores at 10-Year Low Despite Massive Education Reform? This Teacher Has Answers!

Updated on September 3, 2015

Scores Sink Because Students Lack Ownership of Their Education

In America, we have an education dilemma. College tuition rates are soaring, our college graduates lack critical thinking skills, and we are struggling to improve college readiness during K-12. We want everyone to go to college, but how? How will we prepare them for college, how will we get them into college, how will they pay for college, and how will college prepare them for career?

These questions point to exhausting and frustrating tasks ahead. That frustration has just been compounded by recent news that the high school class of 2015 earned the lowest SAT scores in a decade, meaning zero progress on the college readiness front. While most of the recent decline in SAT scores has been attributed to a substantial increase in the number of lower-income students taking the college readiness exam, the increase in such students taking the exam has largely petered out. So why aren't SAT scores rising again?

Critics are frustrated at the lack of progress because it comes despite a massive wave of education reform that is intended to boost student performance. How can we be spending so much money on revamping schools and curricula...but not see any improvement in SAT results? The answer is simple: We have shot ourselves in the foot by removing students' ownership of the education process.

I am a high school economics teacher, which means I teach seniors. Many are well-prepared for college-level rigor, but an alarming number are not...and this includes seniors in Advanced Placement (AP) economics. These underprepared students often turn in work late, have poor writing skills, and seem to put little effort into studying. Why such lack of effort? We let them get away with it.

Education reformers are, sad to say, enablers of student apathy.

Before the school year began, I sat in our high school auditorium with other faculty members and listened to speakers tell us that things were different these days, that it was up to us to push kids forward. "We can no longer blame students for lack of performance," a former superintendent said. The prevailing message was that the ship had sailed on student accountability.

Accountability is now squarely on the shoulders of teachers. We have given up on trying to make minors responsible for their own grades. They are, after all, only children.

Of course, it is hard for me to view many of my hulking 18-year-old students as "children." But we have infantalized them by refusing to let them fail and forcing them to learn from their mistakes. Every failing grade is bumped up to passing. Every transgression is forgiven. Every misbehavior is overlooked. Do we wonder why students now refuse to take the SAT, ACT, and exit-level standardized tests seriously?

Too many students have never been held accountable for their education performance. They have no ownership of it. To them, it is relatively meaningless. They go to school and get a guaranteed passing grade. Frankly, it is performance-sapping. Why work hard to get an A when a C is guaranteed?

Just as bad as the "no child ever fails" is the fact that good performance is hardly rewarded. An A student may not be able to afford college. Why try so hard to get good grades when your tuition remains the same as that of a C graduate? High schoolers who get high grades certainly have a better chance at winning scholarships, but results are far from guaranteed. Hardworking but impoverished high school students are left out in the cold when their straight-As do not garner enough scholarships.

Meanwhile, rich kids can coast by with Cs because college admissions are more lax today and focus more on revenue than on academic aptitude.

To improve student performance and college readiness, we must combat both problems. We need to end rampant grade inflation and demand that students earn their grades. We must not be afraid to allow public school students to fail. After all, it is free to come back and succeed! For those who do succeed, we must make sure to reward effort and aptitude with lower college tuition rates. College tuition rates should be tied to academic performance.

We should champion Bernie Sanders' proposal of free public higher education tuition and make sure that every high school graduate who earned a 3.0 GPA or better can go to college free of charge. Talk about an incentive to perform! Students might actually want to learn under those circumstances.


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    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 

      3 years ago from Ohio, USA

      Why does the NEA fight every reform that includes ranking teachers according to test scores, but you bemoan low test scores?

    • letstalkabouteduc profile image

      McKenna Meyers 

      3 years ago from Bend, OR

      Excellent points! My son in middle school received all A's in 6th grade but instead of feeling proud, I felt worried about our educational system. My son earned those high marks without breaking a sweat and without ever being challenged academically. When I tried to get him in a more demanding math class, the vice-principal said he should stay put. He got an A in math with very little effort. We have a lot of programs in place to help low performing students but very little for those who need academic rigor.


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