Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

The Real Dumbest Generation?


In the Washington Post, Neil Howe takes a swipe at Mark Bauerlein. Howe makes an intially persuasive case that Americans born in the late-1950s to mid-1960s are in fact “the dumbest generation.” He cites SAT scores, NAEP scores, and Census reports of educational attainment.

Once you take a closer look at the data, though, it’s a lot less convincing. SAT scores, as Howe admits, aren’t really useful for figuring out trends — different proportions of high-schoolers take the test each year, and the ones that do aren’t a representative sample. (Also, the test was re-normed once.)

Regarding NAEP scores, Howe writes, “On both the reading and the math tests, and at all three tested ages (9, 13 and 17), the lowest-ever scores in the history of the NAEP were recorded by children born between 1961 and 1965.” Well, so what? Data points fluctuate; if a few of them happen to hit lows within a few years, that doesn’t mean it’s part of an overall trend. Also, 17- and 9-year-olds are eight years apart, and all the records occurred within five years, which suggests that it might have been something about those years, not something about those kids, that resulted in lower scores.

A better way to analyze this would be to look at graphs of the scores, and see if there is a sustained dip around the time the supposedly “dumb” generation was taking the test — and see if this dip travels with the kids (for example, compare 17-year-olds in 1982 to13-year-olds in 1978). There doesn’t appear to be one, except maybe in science (a test Howe doesn’t even mention).

Finally, regarding educational attainment, different sources have different figures. According to this study, those born in 1955-68 were more likely to have reached any level of education than those born in 1940-54. This holds true across all racial categories.

Nick Gillespie of Reason has more thoughts.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

Subscribe to National Review