SAT scores hit four-decade low: What does that mean for Minnesota schools?

SAT reading scores hit a four-decade low trumpets the Washington Post headline. That means one point lower than last year. The average reading score dropped from 497 to 496. Is that even statistically significant?

That’s the national average. Minnesota schools and Minnesota students have even less to worry about. The mean critical reading score for Minnesota students in 2012 was 592, down one point from 2011, but up 11 points from 581 in 2002. So Minnesota schools and Minnesota students are far above average, right?

Maybe, but you can’t tell by the SAT scores. Why not? Only seven percent of Minnesota students took the SAT test in 2012. SAT scores are highest in states where only a select few students take the tests, lowest in states where more students take the test, such as Delaware (100 percent of students taking the test, 456 reading score) or Maine (93 percent taking test, 470 reading score.) (All scores are in the SAT report here – pdf.)

Critics of public education like to point to falling test scores for U.S. students. The biggest factor in falling test scores on SAT and ACT tests is the increasing proportion of students being tested. Back in the day, only the small percentage of students who were clearly college-bound took the tests. Today, a much higher percentage of students takes the tests and plans to go to college.

In Minnesota, students are more likely to take the ACT test, with 74 percent of Minnesota students taking the ACT test in 2012. ACT state average composite scores ranged from a high of 23.8 (in Connecticut, with only 23 percent tested) to a low of 18.9\7 (in Mississippi, with 100 percent tested.) Minnesota, with 74 percent of high school seniors taking the test, had an average score of 22.8, easily within the top ten states and leading the pack of states where at least half the students were tested. As the Minnesota Department of Higher Education boasts:

Minnesota’s average composite score of 22.8 was the highest in the nation among the 28 states in which more than half the college-bound students took the test in 2012. Minnesota has led the nation in average composite ACT scores for seven consecutive years.

Overall, a disturbingly high percentage of students taking the SAT and ACT tests are unprepared to succeed in college. The SAT folks estimate that only 57 percent of the test-takers in 2012 demonstrated that they were ready to succeed in college. The ACT reported:

In 2012, 67% of all ACT-tested high school graduates met the English College Readiness Benchmark, while 25% met the College Readiness Benchmarks in all four subjects. Fifty-two percent of graduates met the Reading Benchmark and 46% met the Mathematics Benchmark. Just under 1 in 3 (31%) met the College Readiness Benchmark in Science.

So — circling back to the question in the headline: what does all of this mean for Minnesota schools? Two things:

First, Minnesota is still doing a good overall job at education, even though, like the rest of the country, we have an achievement gap for low-income and minority students. (Nationally, this achievement gap is increasingly tied more to income than to race — I haven’t seen comparable recent Minnesota figures, though poverty is rising for Minnesota students.)

Second, all numbers should be regarded with skepticism, and carefully analyzed. The WaPo headline at the beginning of this article is 100 percent accurate and yet entirely misleading. That’s not unusual with reporting on education and test results. Reader, beware!

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