After Drop in SAT Scores, College Board Calls for Action

According to the annual report published by the College Board, fewer than half the members of the 2013 high school class who took the SATs had the academic skills necessary to succeed in college. More troubling still, this percentage has not varied much over the past five years, breaking the trend of small but notable gains in the decade before.

David Coleman, the College Board president, said that too many educational stakeholders have become complacent with the lack of progress in college readiness among high school graduates — and warned that such an attitude is dangerous. At a time when the country is battling to keep itself relevant in the global economic marketplace, failure to improve for five straight years should be considered a call to arms.

"While some might see stagnant scores as no news, we at the College Board consider it a call to action," said College Board President David Coleman. "We must dramatically increase the number of students in K–12 who are prepared for college and careers. Only by transforming the daily work that students do can we achieve excellence and equity. The College Board will do everything it can to make sure students have access to opportunity, including rigorous course work."

The College Board uses its SAT exams to develop the SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark, which uses students' scores to predict their likely GPA in their first year of college. Under the Readiness Benchmark, an SAT score of 1550 out of 2400 means that a student has a 65% chance of earning an average of B- or better in the first two college semesters. Students whose grades are B- and above are much more likely to not only complete their college education without dropping out, but to do so on time.

According to the College Board data, 78% of those who meet the benchmark will enroll in a four-year school and 54% will actually earn a degree.

The students who met the benchmark in 2013 shared a number of other critically important academic characteristics that must be expanded to all students if our nation is to make meaningful gains in educational attainment.

Students who met the SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark were:

More likely to have completed a core curriculum. 84 percent completed a core curriculum (defined as four or more years of English and three or more years each of mathematics, natural science, and social science or history), compared to 69 percent of those who did not achieve the SAT Benchmark.

More likely to have taken honors or AP ® courses. 63 percent took an honors/AP English course; 59 percent took an honors/AP math course; 56 percent took an honors/AP natural science course; and 61 percent took an honors/AP social science/history course, compared to 29 percent, 21 percent, 20 percent, and 25 percent, respectively, of those who did not achieve the SAT Benchmark.

More likely to be ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class by GPA. 55 percent reported being in the top tenth of their class, compared to only 17 percent of those who did not achieve the SAT Benchmark.

The College Board press release which trumpets its new call to action also outlines one specific way in which it plans to improve the academic prospects of students in demographic groups underrepresented on college campuses around the country – minority students and those from low-income families. According to David Leonhardt of The New York Times, the group is sending out information packages on the country's most selective and prestigious colleges to students who earned SAT scores in the top 15% nationwide and whose family income is in the bottom 25%. Twenty-eight thousand students will receive the packages, which will include application fee waivers to be used on six college applications of the student's choice.

The College Board's information packets are modeled on those sent in a recent experiment by Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford and Sarah E. Turner of the University of Virginia, economists whose findings suggested that application fee waivers greatly influenced students' decisions.

Among high-achieving, low-income students in the experiment who received a packet, 54 percent ultimately won admission to one of the nation's 238 top colleges; among similar students who did not get a packet, 30 percent were admitted.

The College Board believes that by encouraging greater academic participation among low-income students, the country could jump-start improvement in its education system.

However, to some, like Jason Richwine of National Review, the annual release of the College Board report has become nothing but annual hand-wringing over a problem that doesn't exist. Although Richwine bemoans the dearth of new arguments offered for why stagnation in college readiness is a bad thing, there's nothing particularly original in his rebuttal, either. Much like former Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan, Richwine simply states that college is not for everyone, although without offering any numbers as to what the ideal proportion among the US student population would be.

In reality, there is a substantial fraction of students for whom "college ready" is not an appropriate goal. The costly four-year-college track simply does not suit the interests and abilities of many young people who are pushed into it.

Rather than gnashing teeth about college readiness each year, a more productive activity would be to analyze the degree to which our school system is tailoring instruction to individual student needs. For example, is vocational training available to kids who want it? Are two-year technical degrees advertised properly? Are gifted students challenged enough? These are much more important topics than tabulating what percentage of students pass an arbitrary test-score threshold.

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