I love this: Lou Dobbs has a typical ranting op-ed on CNN.com denouncing the fatalistic attitude of today's politicians, and includes this graph:
Our public education system is failing nationwide. While SAT scores decline, teachers in every state fail competency exams, and our high school dropout rate shows no sign of real improvement. Both parties point to their bipartisan bandage, No Child Left Behind, rather than propose real and immediate solutions.
Sounds fair enough. The trouble is: SAT scores aren't declining. Math scores have never been higher -- they're 14 points above where they were 10 years ago. Verbal this past year is four points above where it was a decade ago. And yet, during that time period, there has been a 38% increase in the number of people taking the test -- a trend which has the effect of dragging down the average, since the new test takers tend to come from the bottom of the class. (Their equivalents in 1996 didn't bother taking the test because they didn't plan on going to college.) There's also a huge increase in minority test-takers, who tend -- again, on average -- to have lower scores than the rest of the population. So even with an expansion in test-takers, and a swelling minority population with many non-native English speakers, the overall average for both verbal and math has improved since 1996. It's one thing to be a fatalist about the state of the education system in the U.S. It's another thing to simply get the facts wrong.
Updated 6/1: A couple of you have written in to say that the problem with this logic is that the SAT tests have been re-normalized several times over the past decades so that 500 would be roughly the average score. This is true, but the last time it happened was 1994, so it's irrelevant to my point about trends over the past ten years. And secondly, the SAT folks and other education scholars are not idiots: they know the scores were adjusted, and so when they do long-term trend analyses, they adjust them back so that it's an apples-to-apples comparison. This chart shows you the adjusted history (along with the raw scores.) The picture is very clear: a steady decline from late sixties to about 1990, and then a steady increase since then. And for what it's worth, most, if not all, of that decline from 67-90 is attributable to the dramatic increase in SAT test-takers, not to some overal decline in educational standards.