How Can We Make American Students Smarter?

Maybe Mr. George Bush was not so uninformed when he pushed for No Child Left Behind. This is not a discussion on NCLB, but it was a result of low test scores nation wide. May be I am just stuck in a bubble of education right now, I consider any ACT score under 30 and SAT score under 2000 as “bad”. Now it may shock you that the national averages are significantly lower than I have even heard of anyone getting.

National ACT Averages (2010)

Composite: 21.0
English: 20.5 
Math: 21.0 
Reading: 21.3 
Science: 20.9 

Now, the scores with the most kids

Composite: 21
English: 21
Math: 16
Reading: 20
Science: 20

Look at that math score. 180,723 kids got a score of 16 on the Math section.

National SAT Averages (2010)

Critical Reading: 501
Math: 516
Writing: 492

I find those figures appalling. Now, how can those averages be so low? Is it the nature of the tests themselves? Is it the fabric of how the educational system run? Are they mostly due to socioeconomic situations? How can we fix this problem?


I wouldn’t necessarily conflate NCLB-mandated testing with university-entry tests like the SAT and ACT. They’re aimed at different things.

The impetus to perform well on the college tests lies first and foremost with the student: their future will almost certainly depend on it. As for the NCLB testing, depending on the jurisdiction, a passing mark may not have any effect on the student’s promotion to the next grade, or their eventual admission by a university. Those tests are primarily a way to measure schools and other administrative entities, and as a result, the schools are the ones that take them most seriously.

Nevertheless, you’re right to wonder what methodological issues might be affecting the statistics, and right to question the policies that govern the education system.

Incidentally, as far as NCLB is concerned, it was bad policy, but with reasonable intentions. The key flaw was assuming that performance on standardized tests would necessarily be an accurate predictor of students’ knowledge. This is only true to the extent that you hold everything—and in particular, the curriculum—constant. As soon as you adjust your teaching style and methods to focus on the testable items, without also revising your definition of knowledge to focus on the test content, you’ve introduced a confounding effect.

One example of this might be a breadth-for-depth tradeoff: students become more proficient in the types of language skills required on their test, but spend less time being exposed to a variety of literature, or practicing different writing styles. If this increased their test scores by 2%, did that curriculum change make the students 2% smarter (in terms of language)? It seems obvious that it probably wouldn’t have, yet this is an expectation against which the schools are being measured. (Note that it isn’t inconceivable that there actually was a benefit to the new teaching method, measured against a constant standard—maybe 0.4%, to pick a number for illustrative purposes.)

The other glaring flaw with NCLB is that it takes funding away from schools that score poorly. Given that change and improvement tend to cost money, this is exactly the wrong move. It comes from a misguided belief that it would be irresponsible to throw good money after bad—but that’s just folk wisdom substituting for an actual understanding of whether fiscal irresponsibility was actually involved in a school’s lack of success. The architects of NCLB in effect blamed low educational outcomes on mismanagement, and therefore tried to punish the bad managers by cutting their funding. Unfortunately, they never figured out a rigourous way of determining whether the management was doing a good or a bad job in the first place—and their proxy, student test scores, is a terrible approximation in a substantial number of circumstances.

While I also hate NCLB, it’s not because it caused low SAT/ACT scores. Both tests are curved (based on a standard distribution, hence the median scores having the most recipients), and the reason the average scores are average is because the College Board and ACT, Inc have chosen to curve the tests to make those the average scores.

The international average for math is 587 and writing is 510, only the critical reading is below Americans’ average. International students are taking the same tests; why are they “better” at it than Americans?

The SAT and ACT are tests for entry into American universities, the majority of applicants to which are American. The pool of international test-takers is much smaller and far more self-selecting than domestics. Honestly, I’m surprised the average international scores aren’t much higher than they are.
In some US high schools, all students (even those not planning on attending college) are forced to take the test, and how motivated do you think they are to do well? They probably skew the numbers a bit.

Smarter how? There are many forms of intelligence in this world. Not all of them are related to books. Some people know language. Some people know math. Some people know people. Some people know other things. When discussing something like this, just be aware that a part of the reason some students don’t do well on these tests are because they are busy with other things in life. Perhaps the only way to improve test scores are to remove some of these distractions. They range from troubled neighborhoods to family issues. Any restructuring of the education system will have minimal impact unless you pair it with various programs to directly motivate the individual student. School life and home life both impact the student equally.


Please be sure to separate the test score from the value of the person: failure to do so can lead to some bad things for society. PM me for examples from history if you can’t think of any.

Not everyone is smart, but you don’t have to be in order to survive and flourish in this world. You don’t need a PhD to dig a ditch nor do you necessarily want a PhD digging one, but ditches still need to be dug.

What is more important than raw intelligence is a strong work ethic. I can guarantee success to someone willing to work for it, just as I can guarantee failure to someone who believes work is unnecessary for success.

Funny how our little robot team emulates life.

First way to fixing education is smaller class sizes. I don’t think anyone disagrees with that.

Another way would to make the teaching profession more enticing to industry professionals, and easier to get started in. The bureaucracy, red tape, and cost a person must go through to become a teacher is ridiculous.

Michigan public school students are required to take the ACT as part of our state standardized testing (MME). Based on my personal experience with my classmates, probably about 1/4 of my classmates took the test seriously (most of them utilizing study aids or taking classes), and the remaining 3/4 couldn’t care less. I would bet that the 1/4 who cared scored far higher than those who didn’t. I think that part of the problem is that many students don’t see reason to score well: it could be that standards are not set in the home, they don’t plan on attending college, there aren’t social pressures to conform to, they simply don’t care about their future yet, etc. If we found ways to improve motivation from a younger age, I’m sure that general education (NOT just test scores) would improve as a whole. Personally, I think that a more applied, personal education (showing students WHY they should know the material that they’re being taught, and giving some real-life examples) is one of the solutions.

I couldn’t agree more. I felt that the learning environment was far better in my 20-student Humanities class than in my 29-student Pre-calculus class. Unfortunately, as school budgets shrink, the size of mandatory couses only grows.

One of my friends initially scored an 18 on his ACT. Another one of my friends scored a 36. I scored a 29. Like a lot of universities, I consider a 23 to 25 to be a good, average score. My high school’s averages were very close to the national ones, and our district prides itself on being consistently ranked one of the top in the nation (which I have issues with, but that’s not a rant for here). Back to the friends above…they going to a respectable state university as a music major and to Harvard, respectively. What scores are considered “normal” or “good” to a person depends on the social norms in their area, as shown by the differences in our views.

All that being said, I am of the opinion that the ACT is a horrible way of determining a person’s education/intelligence, and should only be used for that purpose when other indicators are also being looked at (such as GPA, social concerns, and district-wide numbers).

If the SAT is supposed to be a metric to compare students, shouldn’t the average be kept around 500 at most? Otherwise, how are you going to tell who is excelling and who is behind? I read about a test that got rid of their out-of-context questions(such as analogies) and added in-context questions. This was a more accurate indicator of the skills needed to excel in society. This is just one of the many things SAT makers need to consider doing. Also, part of the reason test scores are low is because the strategies promoted to take the SAT. They suggest to only answer questions your confident about and thats good if your not comfortable with a subject. However, if you are comfortable with the subject matter you should answer every question. I had a friend that was taking BC calculus in high school and scored a 500 on math his first time around. I gave him this advice and he went up to 720. This just shows one of the flaws in society. Not only do we have a one-size-fits-all test, but we also promote a one-size-fits-all strategy to take it.

Considering many people commenting how poor the test is at testing academic skill, how would you test it? How would you change the test?

I would change the math questions to involve more applicable word problems and less that don’t make sense. I would add some multiple choice questions that asked about math theory rather then just math practice. That way we can accurately tell how many people knew the approach. Questions such as, which method of factoring would be appropriate for this problem? For english, I would get rid of words that nobody has used. Usually they just test for who prepared for the SAT rather then who knows the word. I would combine the english and the writing into one test. They are both part of the same subject and should be dealt with as such. The writing should have more papers to write and be shorter in length. That way you can ensure each person talks about something they know and something they don’t.

Full disclose: I got a 800 on the math, 580 on the english, and 420 on the writing. The math wasn’t because I was great at math rather because I am fast and cautious with my math, english was largely luck(I guessed on half of the analogies), and the writing was because it was a very weird topic for me to write about. I state this because it shows clear implications into my feelings of the test and should show any bias that I may have.


How do we make American Students Smarter?

It takes more than a school system, more than a teacher, more than fancy standardized tests. There is an old saying, “It takes an entire town to raise a child”. It applies here as well.

It has to done on multiple fronts such as the following (IMHO).

  1. Parent accountability and responsibility to ensure their children do attend, do homework, and the parents HELP and participate in the education of their children. Granted that’s not always possible, broken homes, etc… , but lack of parent responsibility and accountability should be the exception, not the norm. Perhaps a “Bad Parent Tax” should be levied.

  2. Give Teachers greater ability to enforce greater classroom control and discipline. The teachers hands are tied today. Granted teachers should not be disciplinarians, but at least give them ability to maintain order without fear of reprisal, or child abuse charges,etc… Too many times have I heard of one or a few disruptive students impeding the teachers ability to teach those that truly want to learn. This disruption must be stopped cold. All parents and students sign a wavier giving teachers this ability.

  3. Raise Standards. The standards are far to low today. The passing test results have more to due with “funding” than with actual educational success. It’s truly sad that so many that I interview today, even college graduates can’t even write a complete sentence, and have even worse verbal skills. Believe me this area is my own personal worst, but what I see today is even poorer than my own.

  4. End or Modify NCLB. While concept is worthy the implementation is faulty. Too many students are basically pushed through without being given the proper education in order to simply to fulfill this objective. It is not achieving it’s goal, it’s have the opposite effect.

Just for the record, I’m not a teacher.

I suggest all to watch “Waiting for Superman”

A great documentary on the current school system and its flaws.

While not a discussion on NCLB I do want to make a trivia point.

NCLB wasn’t a Bush’ism. It was a bipartisan effort that was a pet project of President Bush and Senator Kennedy. It was something Kennedy wanted to do for a long time and when Bush entered the Presidency they had a common project to work on. This is something that pundits conveniently forget.

Speaking from my experience only…
You want to make young people better students, learn more and be “smarter”? You have to give them a reason to do so. There needs to be a light at the end of the tunnel, a carrot, a reward. There are those few that see getting better grades than those around them as enough of an incentive. Some like the approval of family, parents, and teachers. Some want to attend a better university and so they will work like mad to get better grades. For the rest, none of these things work. It was not until I saw that electronics was fun and that it pays, that I started to really get good grades. I thought you needed to learn history to be able to answer questions on quiz shows. English, why? I already speak and write. It was not until I decided they were important for me did I start to really work hard and even fight for grades I deserved. And yes, everyone told me all of the above, “you need to get better grades because…” “Alan can do better, he just choses not to…” “You want to go to a good university don’t you?” Well now I know, I needed to work hard to allow me to choose my career, not have one thrust on me. I enjoy what I do everyday and thank God that I found this out just in time.

I have been told I was a unique case by my school counselor. I guess I just was not the type for public education. I am the type of person that disregards grades, rank, awards, positions and stuff like that. Some would call me an undisciplined rebel. Sure, that sounds like me in some perspective. I used to scoff at those kids that would compete for the higher grade. In my eyes, they were doing it all wrong. The purpose of education is NOT to just get good grades; I knew this from an early age. I still facepalm at those kids who play the system to get the highest GPA or rank in school. It is ridiculous what some kids would do. I was appalled by that type of behavior; yet it is those kids that turn to me and scold me for reading about quantum physics instead of reading about capacitance. I know I have my flaws, I know that I won’t get into a good college if I keep this attitude up. I have to play by the rules of the game or I will be purged out of the system. Also for awards, I personally think awards are ridiculous. The person receiving the award knows his or her accomplishments and dies not need a committee of people to confirm for him/her.

Sir, I am just like how you were. I have been receiving the comments “David can do better than this, he just needs to try harder.”; “David is a smart boy, his grades do not show it”. According to the system, I am dumber than I am on paper. That, I believe is my problem. I remember I was that kid that finishes tests 10 minutes faster than everyone then get a 100% on it. That was mostly due to the fact that all I ever read was nonfiction books, often higher than my grade level. I read extensively about biology, geology, anything science related. Then came high school, where they took things a little farther. Sure, I would still be acing every single biology test, but I still only had a C or B because I never did the work. In fact, I was the only student that year that got over a 100% on the final yet I still ended up with a C in the class because of my ignorance. I never did the work, and when I did, it was done half assed, bare minimum. That habit is not a good thing to have. Then I had that same attitude the next year, including during robotics. if anyone remembers, I was the kid that played Madden on the computer the whole time during competition. My grades were also terrible by then. Junior year came and went. I still have not recovered from my bad habits. But I plan on changing that. I spent the summer so far studying calculus and physics with calculus.

Also, a side note, thank you for suggesting Bradley. I will be going to an information meeting in 2 weeks.

Another fundamental flaw of education is that to a large degree we group all the students together at random as if they are all equals. They are not. Imagine how much further ahead we’d be if we took all the bright students and put them together, and didn’t have to slow them down by placing them in classes with failing students. I think sometimes equality goes too far.

And regardless of smartness or intelligence, what about the simple desire to be there? I’d venture to guess approximately half of high-school students don’t want to be in school or don’t see the point. Why should the rest of everyone have to deal with them? Put them in their own school and let everyone else move on. Of course, I have no idea what the societal impacts of a such an idea would be.

There should be more schools for people who are determined to learn. A place where those with a desire to learn do not have to be surrounded by the ones without such a desire. One of the reasons FIRST works so well is that all the people who do it want to. The same can’t be said for most high school classes.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should leave behind mediocre or poor students. What I am saying though is that it makes no sense for a Ferrari to be stuck behind a dump truck on a single-lane road.

Sir, I’ve noticed that you are a teacher at a magnet school. Would you say that the magnet system works in effectively producing high performance students? Now, I had no choice but to go to the school I go to right now; I did not even qualify for your school in Middle School. Was the requirements a C average? Yea, I did not have a C average in middle school. Now, I do not want to really start comparing, but are magnet schools actually better than regular public schools?

A side note: Have we met in person?

One thing I have learned over the years is that there are very few “dumb” people. There is a lot of people that are about the same degree of “smart”. The difference is how focused they are. If one constantly looks at the stars, inevitably they will trip over their untied shoelaces. If you are one who chooses to look at everything at once, then it is difficult to be great in one area. What you need to learn is how to focus in the area needed for the moment. Get the job done and then go back to a wider view. Think about Einstein… He noticed that the bell and clang of the street car changed as it approached him and then passed him. We know it as the Doppler effect now, but his view was wide open. Then he concentrated down onto the effect and looked for it in other areas he was interested in. As he concentrated, he realized that light coming towards us shifted up in frequency and that moving away from us shifts down.
The unfortunate issue in all of this is testing. It is hard to concentrate on just the material needed for the test. However, you need to train yourself to do so. Testing is an imperfect system but it is the one in use. If you want to do something with your life (and it sure sounds like it does!) then you have to make the decision to change and adapt. You and I both know you are capable of exactly what those students in the top 10% are currently doing. Figure out a way to get motivated and do the work. Believe me, you will be much happier in the end.

David, Al is right. I am sure you know this by now but you are not going to be able to change the system fast enough to benefit you. That means to get anywhere you need to play the system. When you get to college it only gets worse, at a highly competitive school your GPA will be key to your success. I know you posted earlier saying you disliked students that play the system to boost their GPA but trust me improving your GPA opens doors.

Most top engineering schools will say they don’t have a “Cut Off” GPA or SAT score for admissions, and it is true that these schools turn down people without standing test scores but if your SAT scores are in the 1200’s (1800’s by the new test) you are going to have to have some impressive accomplishments to get into a top tier school (75% of accepted MIT students score over 1410/2080).

I went to what I consider a very good engineering school (though our 75th percentile for test scores is about the same as MITs 25th) at RPI which is notorious for not inflating GPAs. If you don’t take the time to do the work and maintain a GPA above 3.0 (or higher if you want to go to grad school) you will regret it. I had a good GPA and had no trouble finding a job after school. I have a friend who had a Sub 3.0 GPA and had his resume handed back to him at the career fair because many companies will not even look at candidates that don’t maintain a 3.0+. While some may think that being smart, hardworking and capable will get you a job somewhere and you can work up based on your merits (not your GPA) from there you are right but only to an extent. Leadership development programs at top companies like GE, BAE, Lockheed, and MITRE require GPA’s of 3.5+ and are worth every pit of the work, after completing a 2-5 year rotational program you are fast tracked in engineering management, the pay scale is exponentially higher for these jobs, mean while your classmates with lower GPA’s (even with 3.0+) find themselves working their way up through Engineer 1, Engineer 2 and so one, a high GPA can easily mean a 5 year head start in your career.

The system may suck but if you are smart enough to identify the system you should be smart enough to see that working with it is the best way to get the most out of yourself.

Or if you’re smart enough to transfer to a school that doesn’t do grade deflation on the scale that RPI does. :stuck_out_tongue:

Some students take thousands of dollars of summer classes to bump their 2.9 GPAs to 3.0 GPAs. It’s that important for your first job, apparently.