SAT Scores — What the Media Are Missing

When the College Board released SAT scores for the nation in late August, media outlets and state departments of education around the country were quick to report overall statewide averages. Sometimes, this mislead the public. A press release from South Carolina superintendent of education Jim Rex noted, for example, that the state’s “high school seniors… raised their average SAT scores by two points” from the preceding year. Though they still placed 48th out of the 50 states.

Shortly thereafter, a few astute folks in the Palmetto state noticed that South Carolina’s average rose solely due to a substantial improvement in the performance of private school test-takers, and that the composite scores for public school students actually fell by 5 points.

That, however, is not the end of the story. Many in South Carolina have long assumed that the state performs below the national average on the SAT in part because of the socio-economic and racial composition of its test takers. In plain English, there’s a widespread belief that South Carolina is brought down by its large share of poor and African American students. Umm. No.

What the data show is quite different. Middle-income South Carolinians score 32 points below middle-income families nationally. Those from families earning less than $20,000 score 72 points below their income peers nationally. And those from families earning over $160,000 score 74 points below their income peers nationally. It is the richest South Carolinians who are the furthest behind their income peers around the nation.

As for the racial breakdown: Blacks in South Carolina are 30 points behind those elsewhere around the country, while whites in South Carolina are 42 points behind whites nationally.

The belief that South Carolina’s most privileged families are getting an excellent public school education and that their scores are being dragged down by those less fortunate is a fiction with little basis in reality.