The College Board’s False Alarm about SAT Scores

by Jason Richwine

It’s time again for the yearly ritual: The College Board releases data on recent SAT scores, which show some large percentage of American students are not “college ready.” The alarm is sounded. Much hand-wringing follows. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The Atlantic has helped move things along this time with an article entitled “This Year’s SAT Scores Are Out, and They’re Grim.” The article warns, “For the fifth year in a row, fewer than half of SAT-takers received scores that qualified them as ‘college-ready.’”

Absent from the article is any discussion of what percentage of students should be college-ready. How can the results be “grim” without some a priori understanding of what constitutes success?

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.

It would also be nice if more media outlets noted the College Board’s conflict of interest here. In releasing the data, the College Board issued a “call to action,” saying, “These scores can and must change — and the College Board feels a sense of responsibility to help make that happen.” And, coincidentally, ensuring these scores go up will require everyone to purchase College Board exams for years to come!

It gets worse. The College Board offers some speculative reasons about why some students are college-ready and others are not. One is that more college-ready students took the PSAT. (Guess who sells the PSAT.) Another is that college-ready students took more AP tests. (Guess who sells AP tests.) Still another is that more college-ready students completed a “core curriculum.” (Guess who will be selling tests based on the Common Core national standards.)

Ginning up alarm may be lucrative business, but education policy requires a more mature discourse.