Myth: American test scores have fallen in the last 30 years.

Fact: American test scores have risen for all sub-groups.


The drop in average SAT scores is a statistical fluke. Thirty years ago, advantaged and over-achieving white students formed a disproportionate share of all those taking the test. Today, a growing share of minority and lower class whites are taking the test also, and they tend to score lower than advantaged whites. However, the scores of minorities have been rising over the last few decades, even faster than whites. Thus, everyone's scores are generally rising, even though the average is dropping.


Many critics of public education agree with the following statement by former Yale president Benno Schmidt:

At first glance, the numbers seem to support this assertion. Between 1972 and 1992, the combined math and verbal scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) fell from an average of 937 to 899. This drop occurred despite the fact that the U.S. doubled its per-pupil spending, from $2,611 to $5,521 (in 1990 dollars) between 1965 and 1990.

However, the drop in SAT scores is a statistical fluke called "Simpson's paradox." This occurs when everyone's measure is rising, but the average is dragged down by expanding the population at the base. To see how this works, consider the U.S. Baby Boom of the 1950s. The fact that the average age of Americans was declining in the 1950s did not mean that Americans were aging in reverse. On the contrary, it only meant that the birth rate was climbing relative to the death rate.

The same phenomenon has been at work in American SAT scores. Back in the 60s, middle and upper class white students formed a disproportionate share of all those taking the SAT. As the nation's most achieving students, they already posted high scores. Since the 1970s, however, a growing share of minorities and lower class whites have been taking the SAT as well. In 1972, minorities formed 13 percent of all SAT takers. In 1992, that number more than doubled to 29 percent. Unfortunately, minorities tend to score lower than the advantaged white students, and including them among the nation's test-takers has resulted in an average drop in SAT scores.

This does not mean, however, that minorities and lower class whites have not been making progress over the last several decades. They have. Between 1976 and 1992, black scores rose from 686 to 797. Mexican-origin scores rose from 781 to 797. Puerto Rican scores rose from 765 to 772. The average white SAT score declined slightly, due to the inclusion of more lower class whites. Of the entire 17-year old white population, those taking the SAT rose from 19 to 25 percent, a less elite group.

Most, if not all, achievement tests besides the SAT show the same encouraging trends:

Reading proficiency of 17-year-olds, on a scale of 0 to 500, by

selected characteristics: 1971, 1980, and 1992 (2)

Selected characteristics

of students                1971     1980     1992


     Total                285.2    285.5    289.7


    Male                  278.9    281.8    284.2

    Female                291.3    289.2    295.7


    White                 291.4    292.8    297.4

    Black                 238.7    243.1    260.6

    Hispanic                 --    261.4    271.2

Control of school

    Public                   --    284.4    287.8

    Private                  --    298.4    309.6

Parents' education level

    Not graduated

      high school         261.3    262.1    270.8

    Graduated high

      school              283.0    277.5    280.5

    Post high

      school              302.2    298.9    298.6

Percent of 17-year-old students performing at or above three 

mathematics proficiency levels, by race/ethnicity: 1978 to 1992 (3)


                  operations     Moderately     Multistep

                         and        complex       problem

                   beginning     procedures       solving

Year and             problem            and           and

race/ethnicity       solving      reasoning       algebra



    1978                  92             52             7

    1982                  93             48             6

    1990                  96             56             7

    1992                  97             59             7


    1978                  96             58             9

    1982                  96             55             6

    1990                  98             63             8

    1992                  98             66             9


    1978                  71             17             0

    1982                  76             17             1

    1990                  92             33             2

    1992                  90             30             1


    1978                  78             23             1

    1982                  81             22             1

    1990                  86             30             2

    1992                  94             39             1

The fact that more minorities and disadvantaged youth are taking the college-bound SAT, and that their scores are generally rising on a wide variety of achievement tests, indicates that our public education system is succeeding, not failing.

Return to Overview


1. Unless otherwise noted, all facts and quotes in this essay are from Richard Rothstein, "The Myth of Public School Failure," The American Prospect, no. 13, Spring, 1993.

2. The National Center for Education Statistics, The Mini-Digest of Education Statistics, Educational Outcomes.

3. Ibid.