SAT INFLATION A SAD EXAMPLE OF EDUCATIONAL DECLINE IN U.S.

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The nation's SAT scores are going to be "recentered." Lovely word. It means that every child in America will get something like 100 free points added to his score. There hasn't been a promised giveaway like it since the famed chicken-in-every-pot and George McGovern's \$1,000 government handout to every living American.

Except that, mere numbers being easier to manufacture than real chickens and real money, this promise will be kept. By next April, every high schooler in America will look a hundred points smarter.Why? The College Board says: to make it easier for students and parents to find the average.

When the modern SATs were started in 1941, the average score was 500. They have since slid 76 points in verbal and 22 points in math. Because "most infrequent users of the SAT expect the average to be about 500," explains the College Board, they tend to misinterpret the results. They think a 424 verbal is below average, whereas in fact it is today's sorry mean. We will now cure them of this debilitating misapprehension by "recentering": By decree, every 424 turns into a cool 500.

Call me a skeptic, but I smell a solution in search of a problem. How many people go around benightedly convinced that the average SAT score is 500? Do you? Never occurred to me.

And even if it is true that thousands of people are misled about their relation to the average because of the widespread myth of the 500 mean, wouldn't it be easy to correct this unfortunate state of affairs by simply telling parents and students in, say, a highlighted alert appended to the letters informing them of their SAT scores that the current national average is 424 for verbal and 478 for math?

Instead, the College Board decides to raise all scores. In addition to the claim of convenience, it throws in a dash of political correctness: "Recentering will help to reflect more accurately the diversity of students now taking the test." Now, invoking diversity is the foolproof way of justifying anything these days, but how does boosting everyone's score reflect diversity?

The one sure thing it does is please the eye and boost self-esteem. Who wouldn't feel better getting a 500 than a 424? Like all other forms of grade inflation, this one satisfies the reigning therapeutic ideology under which the point of pedagogy is to help students feel good about themselves. Scores that make kids feel better about mediocrity do that splendidly.

And inflated SAT scores will boost not just individual but generational self-esteem. The annual national SAT report will no longer be an occasion for recording - in a uniquely clear, quantitative way - how far educational achievement has declined in the last half-century.

Big deal, we are told. The 1941 test population was very small (10,000 compared to more than a million today). It was mostly middle to upper class, white and male. Today it includes more "women, minorities and economically disadvantaged students," says the College Board.

"Thus, recentering on a contemporary reference group will make interpreting individual and group scores easier." Not really, but it sure will make embarrassing historical comparisons much harder.

Why subject this generation to comparison with those frightfully elitist white males of 1941? Because the generation that, as President Clinton recently asserted on Omaha Beach, went on to "save the world" and then rebuild it is a good standard for any society to test itself against.

And because it is patronizing and insulting to the women, minorities and the poor of today's cohort to insinuate that they cannot possibly be held to traditional standards of achievement.

Achievement is always the victim of grade inflation. Perhaps the most pernicious effect of the SAT "recentering" is that it collapses distinctions at the highest levels of achievement. Anyone getting 730 in verbal will now get 800. Those who miss three or four questions will now be entirely indistinguishable from those whose tests are perfect.

Whereas the presumed gain from recentering is a mere convenience (making the mean a recognizable round number), the loss is real: Squeezing together the upper ranks wipes out real, important information about our very best students. The current system dis-tinguishes best from second best. The new system will make that impossible.

Now, turning every silver SAT medal into gold is hardly the worst instance of the assault on excellence now taking place in our educational institutions, but it is highly symbolic. Indeed, the recentering of SAT scores is yet another instance of the recentering of our entire society.

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan has noted, today we accept as the norm levels of crime, illegitimacy, homelessness and various other social pathologies that in the past would have been considered intolerable. Instead of arresting our decline, we simply redefine our current reduced condition as the new norm.

SAT inflation neatly applies that logic to America's educational decline. The mathematical assault on real social problems continues. It will not be complete, however, until we have achieved the ultimate standard, the Lake Wobegon standard, "where all the children are above average." Statisticians are working on that right now.