Assessment/Grading p.o.v.

Nick Carbone (nickc@MARLBORO.EDU)
Thu, 29 Aug 1996 08:18:13 -0400

Below is an editorial from yesterday's _New York Times_ that is a case in
point of the force(s) which seek to solidify grades and assessment by
arguing that what is needed are clearer standards. Apologies if you've
seen it before or aren't all that interested, but it serves to provide
not only an extra-list, but also an extra-institutional context, one that
is especially compelling for those whose institution receive a
significant amount of government (if we can use that word these days)

Nick Carbone, Writing Instructor
Marlboro College
Marlboro, VT 05344


August 28, 1996

Defining Literacy Downward

F or many years, the College Board, the sponsor of the Scholastic
Assessment Test, insisted that the test was "an unchanging
standard." But no more. The latest S.A.T. scores, which were
announced last week, are the first to be graded on a new curve --
one that has lowered the test's "unchanging standard," and our
country's educational aspirations.

The College Board had based the average score -- a 500 on a scale
of 200 to 800 -- on the performance of students in 1941. But last
year, the board decreed that the average score on both the
mathematical and verbal tests would be "recentered" and based on
the results of students who took the test in 1990.

Consequently, a student who received a 508 on the mathematics test
in 1996 would have received only a 484 on the original scale.
Someone who received a 505 on the verbal test this year would have
received an abysmal 428 last year.

A score of 800 on the verbal test is no longer a mark of perfection
-- it can be the equivalent of a less-than-perfect 730.

Originally called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the S.A.T. was
introduced in 1941 as an alternative to written examinations in
subjects like literature, history, science and mathematics. Because
it was multiple choice and graded by machine, it was embraced as an
inexpensive, objective way to gauge college readiness.

In 1963 and 1964, student scores reached an all-time high of 478 on
the verbal portion of the test and 502 in mathematics. After that,
however, scores dropped steadily until 1980, when verbal scores
leveled off at 424 and mathematical scores at 466.

In 1977, a blue-ribbon panel commissioned by the College Board
concluded that the decline was the result in part of the increased
ethnic diversity of the test-takers, but also of lowered
expectations, less homework, the proliferation of nonacademic
courses and grade inflation. The panel concluded that the decline
was significant but not irreversible.

Nonetheless, the College Board in 1994 recentered the scores to
reflect the changing student population. This decision implied that
today's diverse student body would never match the scores of the
college-bound students of 1941, on whom the norms of the S.A.T.
were originally based.

But there is ample evidence that the College Board prematurely
abandoned its "unchanging standard." Math scores rose after 1980,
as schools raised their standards and required students to take
more rigorous courses. In 1995, the average score was an impressive
482, a marked improvement from 1980. And last year 21 percent of
the students scored more than 600 in math, the highest percentage
ever, even though 31 percent of the test-takers were nonwhite. In
math, today's diverse students are competitive with the mainly
white males who provided the norms in 1941.

Verbal scores, however, have not improved. For the last 20 years,
these scores have not risen above 428. And since 1980, only 7
percent of students managed to score above 600.

This was not solely a reflection of growing numbers of
non-English-speaking students; for the past 20 years, the average
scores on the verbal test for non-Hispanic white students have
consistently been under 450.

The reason for this dismal performance is clear. While students
have been taking more advanced courses in mathematics, this has not
been happening in English. According to the College Board, since
1987, high school students have increased their academic course
load in every subject except English. Indeed, the percentage of
students taking four years of English has actually declined.

Moreover, one need only read the proposed "National English
Standards," developed by the National Council of Teachers of
English and the International Reading Association, to see the
incoherence in the field of "language arts." If English teachers
believe that grammar and proper syntax are unimportant, then it is
not surprising that their students would perform poorly on a test
of standard English.

What is the practical result of recentering? The College Board has
turned the deplorable performance on the verbal test into a new
norm. The old average was a standard that American education
aspired to meet; the new average validates mediocrity.

The College Board maintains that colleges know that a 500 on the
verbal exam is the equivalent of a 430 on the old scale, that the
test is just as hard as it used to be, and that it still ranks
students in the same order.

But do students and parents know that they received bonus points
for good timing rather than better performance? Does the public
understand that the higher scores are the result of statistical

By readjusting the norms, the American education deficit seems to
have been eliminated. But nothing has changed, other than the loss
of a high and unwavering standard.

Diane Ravitch, a former Assistant Secretary of in charge of
educatio researchEducation in the Bush Administration, is a senior
research scholar at New York University and the author of "National
Standards in American Education."

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