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Measuring standards measuring success – Miles To Go report from Southern Education Foundation criticized

Two discouraging reports on educational progress, or the lack
thereof, emerged in the last couple of weeks. The first was Miles To Go
from the Southern Education Foundation (see cover story, “The Long,
Winding, And Neglected Road”), which documents the continuing effects
of segregation and the new effects of the anti-affirmative action
backlash on African Americans in the South. The second was the latest
report from the College Board of the latest SAT scores (see story, page
24), which showed a drop in average scores for African Americans.

Both reports come complete with numbers, graphs, and charts galore,
lending an air of official certainty. But what gets lost is how
amorphous and slippery those reports really are.

For example, in Miles To Go, one of the most discouraging pieces of
information reported is that the number of African American first-time
freshmen in Mississippi’s four-year public colleges has dropped rather
precipitously. But the report does not examine what seems to be
contradictory news, which is that overall enrollment of African
Americans in those Mississippi schools — both the historically Black
schools and the traditionally White ones — has gone up, as have
enrollments at community colleges.

One explanation for this is that African Americans may in fact be
using the community colleges in exactly the way they are intended to be
used — as a way to make up for the shortcomings of their secondary
education and as a funnel to four-year degrees.

In other words, African Americans in Mississippi may be finding
individual and institutional ways around the many obstacles that remain
in their state.

Is that something to be celebrated? Well, possibly, if we knew it
for a fact. It would have been nice if the SEF had explored this
possibility. Instead, it dismisses as virtually unimportant the fact
that African Americans in the South are earning record numbers of
bachelor’s degrees. But this is not an unimportant fact, and deserves
to be examined to see how it has happened and what the implications
are, both educationally and politically.

Without that kind of examination, we are in danger of the nation
becoming weary and saying, “Well, we’ve tried everything. If nothing
works, we might as well give up.”

And that leads us in to the annual frustration of the release of
the SAT scores. You saw all the stories in your local and national
newspapers about how the average SAT scores for those students who
entered college in 1998 rose a little on the math section and stayed
steady for the verbal section. However, average scores for African
Americans, Latinos, and American Indians dropped.

News story after news story reported this without even looking at
how many people took the test. When one hundred highly selected and
well prepared students take the SAT you expect to see a high average
score. When one million students with very varied preparation take the
SAT you expect to see a lower average score. That is why you cannot
talk about an average score rising and falling without talking about
the number of stunts taking the exam. In fact, buried in The College
Board’s report is a little warning to reporters: “The proportion of
students taking the test is the most important factor to consider when
attempting to interpret SAT scores for a state, school, or district. As
proportions rise, scores tend to fall.” That is true for the nation, as
well as states and schools.

But that little warning didn’t stop The College Board from issuing
its report without the numbers on how many people took the exam ten
years ago and how that compares with today, nor did it stop reporters
from simply repeating the fact that African American scores dropped.

The fact is that the number of African American students taking the
test in 1998 was 114,912, something of an increase over last year’s
110,482 and a dramatic increase from ten years ago, when 97,483 took
the test. In other words, more African American students consider
themselves college bound and have higher aspirations than in the past.
It would be extraordinary if the average scores did not drop, given the
fact that African American students are so often closed out of those
college preparatory courses in high school that would best prepare them
for college. Both of these reports underline the fact that we in this
nation have not come up with a standard by which we can judge
educational progress or the lack thereof. Is the number of high school
graduates a standard if we don’t define what a high school diploma
represents? Is a score on an SAT a standard when we don’t know how many
people take it or what it represents? Is the number of first-time
freshmen the standard, or the number of bachelor degrees granted?

And should we be looking at the raw numbers, or only at the
percentages? For example, Black Issues throws its lot in with raw
numbers by printing the top 100 institutions that produce the most
African American, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian American
graduates (see our Top 100 issues). We also talk about the fact that
the number of African Americans earning college degrees of any sort
(associate through doctorate) has been increasing at a rate of 6.1
percent per year while the number of Whites earning degrees has dropped
slightly during the 1990s. Is that of key importance, or is it more
valid to emphasize, as others do, the fact that the proportion of
African Americans aged eighteen through twenty-four who have four or
more years of college still lags behind that of Whites?

These are questions with important implications, for how we define
a problem frames how we will solve it. And by not having an agreed-upon
standard, we leave ourselves open to anyone who wants to tell us
anything for whatever purpose.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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