America has a dysfunctional hate-love relationship with standardized tests. In private, students and their parents are terrorized by SAT and ACT college admission test scores. In public, the federal No Child Left Behind legislation adores tests—it requires that each state test its students and publish the results as part of the mandate that every single student in America reach the "proficient" level in math and reading just seven years from now.
The lessons we draw about testing make little sense.
For instance, one of the many fibs Americans tell each other about schooling is that it's crucial to attend a prestigious college in order to get a good education. As proof, we point to the high test scores that students at the most famous colleges earn—such as a mean of 1500 out of 1600 at Yale on the SAT, the best-known college entrance exam.
Yet Yale doesn't systematically test its seniors to determine how much their four years in New Haven have taught them. Instead, Yale's prestige depends in large part upon the stratospheric SAT scores earned by its freshmen while they were in high school.
In reality, we use the average test scores of the college that somebody attends to estimate his intelligence and diligence. The predictable result: an arms race, as ever more students try to worm their way into the most exclusive colleges—a mania that allows colleges to raise tuition relentlessly.
Worse is what our lack of rigorous thought about the realities uncovered by testing does to children in the bottom half of the intelligence curve. Public officials constantly make policies that show they don't have a clue just how clueless millions of young people are. People who are below average in intelligence have enough problems as it is, without being persecuted further by ignorant politicians.
Public discourse about test scores is also retarded by a technical problem. There are such a proliferation of school achievement tests across the 50 states (the NCLB refused to institute a national test), that few people understand what the various scores mean. The states test scores are just not as familiar as SAT scores, which tens of millions of Americans understand at least roughly.
Recently, I recently stumbled on a database on the LA Almanac website listing the average SAT scores at every Los Angeles County public high school. The results were quite startling. They say a lot about public policy—and, indeed, about the future prospects for America. Because, perhaps more than anywhere else, our future is being test-driven in our most populous county, Los Angeles, with its 10 million residents.
Before going over what Los Angeles area students average on the SAT, allow me to review the basics of SAT scores.
Each section of the SAT is scored on a 200 to 800 scale. A third section, Writing, was recently added, but most colleges at present are not paying much attention to it yet, so I'll look just at the better known Verbal (now called "Critical Reading") and Math scores.
To give us oldsters (i.e., anybody over 30) some perspective on what current SAT scores mean, let me first point out that scoring was made considerably easier in the "recentering" of 1995. The SAT was originally normed on Northeastern prep school students. As the percentage of U.S. students who took it each year grew, the average score fell. The goal of the recentering was to put the mean of each test back up to around 500.
So, all you oldtimers out there need not be astounded by how high SAT scores are at elite colleges these days. Recentering means that test takers who would have scored 420 under the old Verbal SAT scoring system had their scores raised to 500. Those scoring 470 on the Math SAT had theirs raised to 500. So, an 890 before 1995 would today score 1000 (500 V plus 500 M = 1000).
Somebody who had an 1120 (520 V plus 600 M) in the past would receive a 1200 today. And a 1350 (640 V and 710 M) would garner a 1400 today.
Currently, 1000 is the 46th percentile among test-takers. The mean is now at 1021 (503 V, 518 M). For your reference, 1200 is the 79th and 1400 the 96th percentile.
An important point: 1021 is just the mean among students who are considering college seriously enough to take the SAT. A sizable minority of students don't bother. So a 1000 would probably be somewhere around the 60th or higher percentile nationally among all 17-year-olds.
If you are more familiar with the ACT—an entrance exam widely taken in the Midwest—a quick conversion has a 1000 SAT (new style) equal to about 21 on the ACT, while 1200 = 26, and 1400 = 31.
Ambitious parents agonize over whether their scions can measure up at, say, Cal Tech, where the mean score among enrolled freshmen three years ago was 740 Verbal and 790 Math for a total of 1530. Duke's was 1420. Northwestern's 1395.
Even public colleges better known for sports often boast impressive SAT scores. The U. of Florida, for instance, which is the reigning NCAA champion in both football and basketball, averages 1267. Football runner-up Ohio State is at 1190, as is perennial powerhouse Oklahoma, with the Alabama at 1107.
The strongest traditionally black college, Howard U. in Washington D.C., averages around a quite respectable 1080. Cal State Long Beach, a somewhat above-average public commuter college, is about 1040.
What's much less well-known are the average SAT scores of high schools.
Nearly matching Harvard-Westlake with a 1382 is the public high school Whitney, a mostly Asian public school in Cerritos that chooses students based on test scores. (Like the famous New York City science highs such as Stuyvesant, which averages 1410.)
The highest scoring neighborhood high school in LA Country without special admissions tests is San Marino, in the exquisite township south of Pasadena founded by old money WASPs. (San Marino's first mayor was George S. Patton Sr.) It's been popular with Hong Kong millionaires for a few decades, and the student body is now 70 percent Asian. The average SAT score is 1231.
Below this top one percent of public high schools, where almost everybody takes the SAT, a methodological problem crops up: how to count students who don't? For example, Beverly Hills H.S., probably the most famous public school in America from the countless movies and television series set on the campus, averages 1190. That sounds really good, but only 74 percent of the students take the test. The other quarter would likely drag down the school's average if they were forced to take it. (Electing A New People note: 40 percent of the students are now Iranian.)
Fortunately, the LA Almanac data table reports another very useful number: the percent of students in 12th grade who scored at least 1000. There's nothing magical about that score, but it's reasonable to say that kids with 3-digit SAT scores are going to have to work exceptionally hard to graduate from college. (For example, at Cal State Northridge in the San Fernando Valley, the average SAT score is 930 and only 25 percent graduate within six years, even though tuition is free.)
Thus, at Beverly Hills H.S., 62 percent of students scored 1000 or better. That's excellent, yet not all that impressive considering Beverly Hills' storied wealth—it's only 9th best in LA County, behind Whitney, California Math Academy in Long Beach, San Marino, La Canada, the two Palos Verdes schools, Arcadia, and Calabasas.
Within the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is 72 percent Hispanic overall, the highest ratio of 4-digit SAT scores is found at the all-magnet Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES). Some 57% of its seniors reached at least 1000.
The only other of the 60 LAUSD high schools with over half of the students exceeding 1000 is the suburban Granada Hills charter high school, which includes a magnet subschool. (All LAUSD figures incorporate the scores of students at magnet subschools within the overall high school's average.)
Other LAUSD high schools include the SOCES magnet, with 40 percent scoring over 1000, North Hollywood and Van Nuys at 28 percent, Birmingham (which was the subject of an LA Times series on the dropout crisis because it's so average) at eleven percent, and Hollywood at five percent.
Near the bottom are Washington, Jordan, and Locke, with only two percent of seniors breaking 1000. And last but least is Jefferson, which is 92 percent Hispanic and eight percent black, and has been the scene of brown v. black race riots. At Jefferson, merely 7 of the 639 twelfth-graders reached 1000 or higher.
In the entire LAUSD, only 14 percent of seniors make it to 1000.
Among those who took the SAT in LAUSD, blacks averaged 807, Hispanics 829, Asians 1007, and whites 1059.
Did lack of English hold Latino mean scores down? Unlikely. LAUSD's Latinos averaged 408 on the Verbal section and 421 on the Math section, compared to 525 V and 534 M for whites and 477 V and 530 M for Asians. This small gap between the Verbal and Math scores for Latinos suggests that unfamiliarity with English is not a severe problem for those who do take the SAT. Those who don't speak English well are less likely to take the SAT.
It would be easy to blame the poor test scores in Los Angeles public schools on the LAUSD, a vast bureaucracy with a poor reputation for management. Yet 26 of the 56 other school districts in Los Angeles County have worse test scores—many much worse.
Take the Compton Unified School District … please. Only one percent of Compton's seniors score over 1000. While Compton was the home of West Coast gangsta rap, its school district is now 69 percent Latino. At Compton's Centennial High, whose red school color was adopted by the notorious Bloods gang when it was founded at Centennial in 1972, only 22 percent of 12th graders took the SAT. And this cream of the Compton crop recorded an average SAT score of 715.
For Los Angeles County as a whole, which includes some of the ritiziest suburbs in America, just 18 percent of public school students reached the 1000 benchmark.
But the news is actually worse. These statistics overestimate the average LA County teenager's aptitude.
That's because a huge percentage of Southern California students drop out before 12th grade. At a typical LAUSD high school like Birmingham in the San Fernando Valley, there are 1442 9th graders and only 532 12th graders. At South Central Locke, which is 5/8ths Hispanic and 3/8ths black, a UCLA study estimated the graduation rate at 24 percent.
Overall, the LA Times reported:
"… a study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University calculated that only 45% of students were graduating in four years from Los Angeles schools. The rate was even lower for Latino students, and much higher for white and Asian American students. African Americans were close to the districtwide average." (L.A. Mayor Sees Dropout Rate as 'Civil Rights Issue' By Mitchell Landsberg, Times Staff Writer March 2, 2006)
If we assume that few of the dropouts would have broken 1000, then, as a rule of thumb, we can divide by two. Thus, only about seven or eight percent of the students who start 9th grade in the LAUSD will break 1000.
For all Los Angeles County public high school freshmen, only about ten percent will exceed 1000 by the time they leave high school.
What about private school students? Do they lighten this dismal picture? The Council for American Private Education reported that at the national level:
"Combined scores for public schools, religious schools, and independent schools were, respectively, 1012, 1057, and 1119."
Students in religious and independents schools, however, make up less than nine percent of all LA County ninth-graders. So even adding them in, it's unlikely that much more than 16 percent of all freshmen in America's most populous county will ultimately break 1000.
It's time for our elites to face up to the fact: millions of young people just aren't all that bright by the standards of the upper middle class. Passing laws based on the assumption that we live in Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average just makes life worse for kids on the left half of the bell curve.
Duke Helfand wrote an important investigative report in the Los Angeles Times last Jan. 30, 2006 entitled A Formula for Failure in LA's Schools:
"When the Los Angeles Board of Education approved tougher graduation requirements that went into effect in 2003, the intention was to give kids a better education and groom more graduates for college and high-level jobs. For the first time, students had to pass a year of algebra and a year of geometry or an equivalent class to earn diplomas.
(I wonder how many members of the Board of Education can pass an algebra test?)
"The policy was born of a worthy goal but has proved disastrous for students unprepared to meet the new demands.
"In the fall of 2004, 48,000 ninth-graders took beginning algebra; 44% flunked, nearly twice the failure rate as in English. Seventeen percent finished with Ds… Among those who repeated the class in the spring, nearly three-quarters flunked again.
"The school district could have seen this coming if officials had looked at the huge numbers of high school students failing basic math.
(Yes, but looking up numbers would have been "insensitive"—and that's the gravest sin these days. Better to make hundreds of thousands of people go through life without a high school degree than publicly to notice that some people aren't as smart as others.)
"Lawmakers in Sacramento didn't ask questions either. After Los Angeles Unified changed its policy, legislators turned algebra into a statewide graduation requirement, effective in 2004.
"Now the Los Angeles school board has raised the bar again. By the time today's second-graders graduate from high school in 2016, most will have to meet the University of California's entry requirements, which will mean passing a third year of advanced math, such as algebra II …"
(Oh, great! Algebra II!)
By law, admission to the University of California is reserved for the top 1/8th of California high school students, as measured by test scores and grade point average. Yet the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is now on course to deny a diploma to the bulk of its students simply because they aren't bright enough to master Algebra II.
A large fraction of LA high school students should be working on finally mastering fractions and percentages, skills they'll actually use in their careers—not banging their heads against the Algebra II wall of abstraction until they drop out.
Why turn the rest of the country into Los Angeles—without the sunshine?