While America's hopes and TV sets are focused on our country's athletic prowess in Seoul this week, we should not ignore the results of another measure of a nation's might, one that measures brains instead of brawn.
According to results released Tuesday by the College Board, average scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test fell slightly this year for students across the country.While the drop is not steep - the average score was 904 instead of last year's 906 - anything but an increase should be less than acceptable for a nation that counts on its young people to solve the future's problems. We expect ever-better records for the mile and the 200-meter freestyle; we should expect improvement scholastically as well.
Although the scores have been fairly stable over the past eight years, they represent a significant drop from average scores in the late 1960s and early 1970s - when the scores averaged as high as 958, 54 points higher than this year's average. (The score includes both the math and verbal portions of the test; the top possible combined score is 1,600).
Utah's average score in 1988 - 1,034 - is well above the national average but also shows a decline over the 1987 score of 1,043. Before Utahns get too smug about our relatively high score, however, we should note that most Utah seniors take the ACT entrance exam rather than the SAT; only 6 percent of our high school seniors take the SAT and generally these are higher-achieving students who hope for admittance to an out-of-state college.
The good news emerging from the SAT results is that scores for minority students have continued a decade-long pattern of improvement. Black students, especially, posted the biggest gains - with verbal scores rising two points and math scores rising 7 points since last year. The increases may reflect the strength of Head Start programs of the 1970s.
The bad news is that, even with these gains, black scores still trail those of white test-takers by 198 points - a finding that indicates the need for continued emphasis on improving the quality of all schools.
The SAT is not the be-all-and-end-all of education. In fact the chairperson of the National Endowment of the Humanities last year called for an end to such standardized testing. That would be folly, since the tests remain an important way of grading America's schools.
Perhaps Americans need to approach scholastic achievement in the same way that our Olympic athletes approach their sports - knowing that it takes hours and hours of training and commitment to be the best.