Monday, April 4, 2011

May 1976: Anatomy of a Crisis

Question: How should we have tried to overcome the “crisis” in dropping SAT scores between 1964 and 1976? And what can we learn from that crisis to apply to our present crisis in education?

Barbara Urbain began her article in the May issue of the English Journal with this paragraph: “The recent flux of articles  bemoaning the decline of Scholastic Aptitude Scores since 1964 should act as a call-to-arms for all high school English teachers. The College Entrance Examination Board announced in September that this year’s high school graduates got lower grades on the SAT’s than any group since 1964. There was an average drop of 10 points in the verbal (reading and writing), and the math scores fared almost as poorly. The scores are figured on a scale ranging from 200 to 800. The 1975 graduates’ average verbal score was 434. The average math grade was 472.”

Comment: Urbain goes on to suggest that the reason for the lower scores was failing to teach writing. Now there is no question that writing contributes to verbal ability. However, the SAT in 1975 contained no test of writing as occurs today (2011) in the SAT. The author did not read carefully the SAT itself or the materials produced by the Educational Testing Service and the College Board in defending themselves in the crisis.

I think what happened in the crisis over the falling SAT scores between 1964 and 1976 should be helpful in responding to our present crisis in education (2011)—failing schools, blaming teachers exclusively for students’ failing to learn, and state high-stakes standardized tests in reading and math.

Responding to the SAT Crisis
First, as I said, no test of writing was included in the SAT in 1975. So Urbain’s characterizing the Verbal Sections of the SAT as a test of reading and writing was inaccurate.

The Verbal section of the SAT in 1975 consisted of four sections, three of which consisted of vocabulary and one section of reading comprehension. The vocabulary sections consisted of “antonyms,” “analogies” and “sentence completions.” (Only sentence completions remain in the SAT today, 2011.)

The vocabulary came from many disciplines, not just English. The reading passages also came from many different disciplines, including science, history and psychology among others.

When Educational Testing Service and the College Board labeled the math section the Mathematics Section, people automatically, without thinking, referred to the Verbal Section as the “English Section.” The vocabulary and reading sections were taken from many disciplines, not just English. But English teachers took the blame for the falling Verbal SAT scores. I was there.

If we were going to solve the dropping scores in the SAT, we should have been concentrating on vocabulary and reading in all disciplines.

Some other facts about the SAT that no one paid attention to:  the test measured  how students succeeded only in the first year of college and the correlation was “moderate.” So the test’s effectiveness was actually limited. Later, educators at the college level realized its limitations (it was an aptitude test, not a test of what students were actually learning in their classes) and changes in the Verbal Section of the test followed. Two sections of vocabulary (“antonyms” and “analogies”) were removed, “sentence completions” and reading comprehension retained and a writing section added).

Responding to Other Crises
What did I learn from this “crisis” that I could apply to other “crises”? Get the facts. How reliable and valid are the many different versions of the state tests in reading and math? Ask questions. What are the causes of student failure? Where does student responsibility fit into the failure? How do problems in society contribute to students’ failure? Obviously the causes of student failure are complex, but until we identify the actual causes, we will continue to dutifully accept a simplistic, and easy-to-blame, witch hunt against teachers. Yes, they are responsible for motivating students and for skillful teaching, But, like doctors, they are human beings, not gods.

Title: “A Linguistic Call to Arms.” Barbara Urbain. English Journal (May 1976), 17-18.

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