NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Dumbing Down Textbooks

December 16, 1996

The College Board has "recentered" the scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Text to "reflect the composition" of the test-takers -- resulting in a lower definition of what is average.

  • The College Board said that students who take the SAT today are 30 percent from minority groups and 53 percent women.
  • In contrast, the original reference group of 1941 was overwhelmingly white and 62 percent male.
  • But even before recentering, today's more diverse group of students was earning SAT math scores that nearly equal those of the elite group of 1941 -- while SAT verbal scores have been low for 20 years.

A recent study in the American Educational Research Journal by Cornell University researchers concluded that the biggest decline in verbal test scores, from 1963 to 1979, was due to the progressive simplification of language in the textbooks, not the different composition of student test-takers.

  • Researchers reviewed 800 textbooks used in elementary schools, middle schools and high schools between 1919 and 1991.
  • They found that textbooks used in grades four through eight are "at their lowest level in American history" in terms of language, and in high schools only science books are written with any degree of verbal difficulty.
  • The average literature textbook used in the 12th grade today is even simpler than the seventh- or eighth-grade reader used before World War II.

The researchers conclude that daily use of simplified textbooks across 11 years of schooling produces "a cumulating deficit in students' knowledge base and advanced verbal skill."

SAT verbal scores began to fall when the students who entered first grade in 1952 became high school seniors. And in recent years, say critics, schools have de-emphasized reading and writing, nearly abandoning the study of grammar, syntax and spelling.

Source: Diane Ravitch (Manhattan Institute), "Dumb students? Or dumb textbooks?" Forbes, December 16, 1996.


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