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Low SAT Scores: It's A Good Thing

Looks like more bad news on the education front. It was revealed on Wednesday that this year’s high school seniors performed worse on the reading portion of the SAT (497) than in any year since 1952 when the test adopted its current scale. The writing portion of the exam (however they grade it) also fared worse than it ever has in its six-year history. Coming on the heels of last year’s news of the U.S.’s embarrassing world education rank, this will strike many as more evidence that America’s chances of ‘winning the future’ are slim. But fret not: Low SAT scores may actually represent a positive long-term trend.

In a paper published in the anthology Key Indicators of Child and Youth Well-Being, Ann Flanagan and David Grissmer point out [p. 106] that when low-income and minority students begin applying to college in greater numbers, and start taking the SAT, their scores bring down the average. “Ironically,” they point out, “if K-12 education improves, allowing more children to attend college, then SAT scores will decline.” This year, black and Hispanic SAT reading scores declined while their participation rates increased. Meanwhile, the number of white test-takers, who scored 77 and 100 points better on reading than Hispanic and black students, remained constant. Likewise, some states with high participation and well-reputed public schools like Massachusetts had very low SAT reading scores, while states not known for good public education like Mississippi, had low participation rates and much higher scores.

In other words, if you’re in high school, you can’t now tell your mom that SATs don’t matter. But if you’re Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, these scores aren’t much to worry about.