There’s a YouTube video that’s been widely linked in the last few days, in which South Carolina’s contestant in the Miss Teen USA pageant, Lauren Upton, gave a babbling and silly answer to this question: “Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?” I give her a break on the question; it’s not a question about geography, but one about sociology, about our education system and our collective isolationist attitude. And she’s 18. I’m not sure what sort of answer I’d have given to that when I was 18, if I’d been on national television with a microphone in my face. How she answered the question doesn’t worry me.
What’s worrisome is the statistic that the question brings up. What’s worrisome is that Ms Upton’s peers continue to do worse over time in tests of knowledge of science and history, as I talked about here, and in mathematics and reading, as the New York Times tells us in this article:
Average scores on the reading and math sections of the SAT test declined slightly this year, as the number of high school students taking the standardized exam grew larger and more diverse than ever before, according to a report released this morning by the College Board on the performance of the high school class of 2007.
Why do I think this is?
Let’s start by looking at why the president of the organization that administers the SAT thinks it is:
“The larger the population you get that takes the exam, it obviously knocks down the scores,” Gaston Caperton, the president of the College Board, said in a news conference this morning. College Board officials called the decline from 2006 to 2007 statistically insignificant.Now, first, one would hope that the president of the College Board could construct a grammatical sentence, and one wonders whether his failure to do that is indicative of the problem, but let’s leave that and look at the substance of what he’s said: If more people take the exam, the scores will “obviously” be lower.
WTF? This is not at all obvious to me. Quite the opposite: it’s clear that it’s completely wrong.
But what Mr Caperton means is not that it’s due to a “larger population” taking the test, but to a more diverse population taking it, a population comprising more “minority and low-income students”:
Several officials of the College Board noted that, in some instances, the traditional gaps between minorities and low-income students and the overall population of test takers had narrowed this year. But much of the data released today appeared to bolster the idea that the increased numbers of minority and low-income students taking the SAT had contributed to the decline in scores.
For example, the average score for students who planned to apply for financial aid in college was 501 in critical reading and 508 in math; the average scores for students who did not intend to apply for aid was 530 in critical reading and 548 in math. The average scores for students whose parents did not graduate from high school was 421 in critical reading and 445 in math; the comparable averages for students whose parents are college graduates was 522 and 533.
I’m pleased to read that the “traditional gaps” are narrowing (so much so that I’ll ignore the common and annoying misuse of “traditional”), and I look to our educators for guidance in closing the gap, and in raising the results for all students.
It’s disturbing that, as in the pageant question, a fifth of us don’t know where things are on a world map. It’s disturbing to see reports of kids coming out of high school unable to make change at the store, or having difficulty understanding what they read. And it’s disturbing that we don’t seem to know how to change that.
No Child Left Behind is an attempt to do it by threatening the educators: teach better, or you’ll pay. And NCLB has shown some results, but results that come from picking the proverbial low-hanging fruit. A longer-term solution can’t just make the assumption that the schools aren’t trying hard enough, and a longer-term solution has to leave room for innovation in teaching techniques and curricula.
A longer-term solution has to consider the sociological aspects. I have no studies or statistics to quote here, but only my own observation: children appear less motivated to learn these things today, compared with 50 years ago. There appears to be more of an attitude that “it doesn’t matter” than there was. And that’s clearly not the children’s doing; it’s a reflection of an attitude of our society as a whole.
Perhaps some see technological change as enabling us to prosper with less learning, less understanding... less work. The reality is quite the opposite: continued advancement and prosperity requires more learning, more understanding, more innovation than ever. And we have to prepare our children for that, not just in the schools, but in our communities.