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Senator Samuel Bell: Rhode Island’s SAT proficiency levels are preposterously high

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“Just because the bureaucrats who set the levels are bad at math doesn’t mean you are.”

If you’re a Rhode Island student (or parent) just getting back your SAT results, and you’re upset that the state says you aren’t “meeting expectations,” don’t be. The SAT is to a large extent set on a curve, and the national average tends to fluctuate around 500. In fact, when the SAT was originally instituted, the idea was that the mean would be 500, and the standard deviation would be 100. Later, the minimum score was set at 200, and the maximum score was set at 800.

When you think of what “meeting expectations” or “proficency” mean, you would think that actually that standard should be lower than the average. That to be not proficient should mean that you’re really doing badly, that you’re in the bottom of the class, not just below average. In fact, the proficiency level gets set well above the average. The required English score is 610, and the required math score is 590.

When Rhode Island’s educational bureaucrats release numbers saying that most students in our state aren’t proficient on the SAT, that’s arbitrary and meaningless. All that means is that they’ve set the proficiency level well above the average.

It gets worse. The way the SAT is set up, 500 is supposed to be the average for the students who take it. Nationwide, it’s mostly students looking for admission into competitive schools who take the SAT. SAT test-takers are overwhelmingly above-average students. But in Rhode Island, every student is required to take the SAT to graduate, even if they don’t intend on going to a competitive college or even a college at all. So our educational bureaucrats are expecting that Rhode Island students should be performing well above the average of how above-average students perform. It’s unrealistic, and they know it’s unrealistic. These numbers are chosen, deliberately, to create a narrative that our students are dumb and failing.

Objective tests, like the NAEP, show that Rhode Island underperforms our demographics, but not in a catastrophic way. It’s consistent with the picture most of us already know: bad schools but pretty resilient students who manage to learn anyway, despite the schools.


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Now, since the SAT rewrite, scores have been elevated nationwide, with the averages around 530 instead of 500. This means that RI students are performing pretty well on the proficiency metric. If the SAT does a score correction to bring the mean down to 500 next year, then we’ll see a sudden drop in our percent proficient. But that will be meaningless. It would be wrong to conclude that, say, the new Education Commissioner would be responsible for such a drop.

So if you’re not “meeting expectations,” don’t worry. You still might be well above average. Certainly, don’t convince yourself that you’re a bad student, and school is not for you. Especially don’t convince yourself that you’re bad at math. Just because the bureaucrats who set the levels are bad at math doesn’t mean you are.

Sam Bell is a Democratic member of the Rhode Island Senate. His district contains the Providence neighborhoods of Mt. Pleasant, Federal Hill, Olneyville, Cathedral Square, Regency Plaza, and Manton Heights, along with most of Hartford Park, a small portion of Elmhurst, and the northern portion of the West End around Dexter Park.