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August 28, 2002 [feather]
Minority Freshman Orientation blogfest coming

Minority Freshman Orientation blogfest coming soon. But first, some thoughts on test scores, teachers, and the future of education.

It's well known by now that American teachers aren't what they could be. According to Thomas Sowell's 1993 Inside American Education,

...hard data on education student qualifications have consistently shown their mental test scores to be at or near the bottom among all categories of students. This was as true of the studies done in the 1920s and 1930 as of the studies in the 1980s. Whether measured by Scholastic Aptitude Tests, ACT tests, vocabulary tests, reading comprehension tests, or Graduate Record Examinations, students majoring in education have consistently scored below the national average.

In 1980-81, students majoring in education scored lower on both verbal and quantitative SATs than students majoring in art, music, theater, the behavioral sciences, physical sciences, or biological sciences, business or commerce, engineering, mathematics, the humanities or health occupations. Undergraduate business and commercial majors have long been regarded as being low quality, but they still edged out education majors on both parts of the SAT. Engineering students tend to be lopsidedly better mathematically than verbally, but nevertheless their verbal scores exceed those of education majors, just as art and theater majors had higher mathematics scores than education majors.

At the graduate level, it is much the same story, with students in numerous other fields outscoring education students on the Graduate Record Examination--from 91 points composite to 259 points, depending upon the field. The pool of graduate students in education supplies not only the teachers, counselors, and administrators, but also professors of education and other 'leaders' and spokesmen for the education establishment. [Therefore], educators are drawing disproportionately from the dregs of the college-educated population. ... In short, some of the least qualified students, taught by the least qualified professors in the lowest quality courses supply most American public school teachers.

The numbers are depressing indeed when you look at them. In 1988, for example, students planning to study education averaged 855 on the SAT (out of a possible 1600). This was forty-nine points below the mean of 904 for all students intending to go on to college. In 1989, the average score for future education students fell to 846--57 points below the national average of 903. These numbers are comparable to how blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans do on the SAT today (see below).

As Diane Ravitch, former U.S. Secretary of Education, has noted, the field of education is a bad joke staged at the expense of children. As of 1998, according to the U.S. Department of Education, about a third of all teachers in middle and high school were teaching "out of field," meaning that they neither majored nor minored in the subject they teach when they were in college. In that year, 55 percent of history teachers had not majored or minored in history; 39.5 percent of science teachers had neither majored nor minored in science; 34 percent of math teachers and 25 percent of English teachers were likewise teaching "out of field." In schools where 40 percent or more of the students were from low-income homes, things were even worse: almost half the teachers at such schools were teaching "out of field." The Education Trust just released a study on the phenonemon of out of field teaching. Peruse it at your blood pressure's peril.

This rank malpractice is made possible by the flimsy non-requirements most states have in place for teachers. In many states, teachers don't have to show that they know a subject in order to be certified to teach it. Since most teachers were education majors--meaning they coasted through notoriously easy fluff courses on "pedagogy" and child psychology while in college rather than actually dedicating themselves to deep study of a real field such as history or math--they can't be expected to demonstrate actual knowledge of actual content as part of their certification. It just wouldn't be fair. The result: in some states, it's easier to earn a teaching certification than it is to graduate from high school.

It's gotten so bad that since 1998, the U.S. Department of Education has been required to issue annual reports on the state of teacher preparation across the nation. These are collected at www.title2.org. You can browse them there, as well as read "Meeting the Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge," a detailed report on the state of American education issued by the Department of Education in June 2002.

Things may improve; then again they may not. The No Child Left Behind Act is a beautiful and worthy--if unrealistic--mission. But with attitudes like these, one has to wonder whether teachers themselves are committed to that mission.

This year's average SAT scores have just been published. Nationwide, the average math score was 516 (out of 800). The average verbal score was 504 (also out of 800). Scrupulously correct, the report breaks those averages down by race and gender. As reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The average math scores, by group, were: white, 533 (up 2 from last year); African-American, 427 (up 1); American Indian, 483 (up 4); Asian-American 569 (up 3); Hispanic and Latino, 464 (down 1); Mexican-American, 457 (down 1); and Puerto Rican, 451 (unchanged).

The average verbal scores were: white, 527 (down 2); African-American, 430 (down 3); American Indian, 479 (down 2); Asian-American 501 (unchanged); Hispanic and Latino, 458 (down 2); Mexican-American, 446 (down 5); and Puerto Rican, 455 (down 2).

Men continued to score higher than women, though that gap is slowly closing. Math scores for female test-takers rose 2 points to 500, and their verbal scores remained unchanged at 502. Men's math scores rose 1 point, to 534, and their verbal scores fell 2 points, to 507.

The report did not supply the average scores for aspiring teachers and future education majors. But we know from historical precedent that they are most likely quite a bit below the already unimpressive national averages, and that, as in the past, they are probably comparable to the average numbers posted by minority students. Perhaps America's future teachers should be classified as an oppressed group. It would certainly be easier to describe them as the victims of biased testing and institutionalized discrimination than to realize Dubya's dream of a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by the 2005-06 school year. But then, that wouldn't change the fact that the low-scoring students of today are going to be teaching our kids tomorrow.

posted on August 28, 2002 9:00 AM