Dumb and Dumber


Kids Today: Dumb and Dumber?


Are America’s students getting dumber?

Well duh!

Read the papers, dude! Talk to teachers. Pick up on what people are saying:

  • Test scores are dropping like stones in a well.
  • Illiteracy is rising like a hot air balloon.
  • Textbooks are being dumbed down.
  • Tests are being dumbed down.
  • Everything’s being dumbed down.

Ah, but. What’s the other thing you hear from stodgy old codgers like me? “I can’t set my digital watch.” “I don’t know how to program my VCR.” “I need a 4th grader to help me.”

Maybe adults are getting even dumber faster?

I decided to look into it. Let me confess: I thought I knew the answer before I started. Humans don’t get dumber, they get smarter—we’ve being doing it for millions of years. And consider how the experts gauge the intelligence of our evolutionary forebears: by their “toolkits.” Well,  look at our “toolkit,” even compared to twenty years ago. Instant replay live TV ! Dust sized surveillance cameras! How dumb could we be? Someone’s making this stuff.


What’s the Score?


“But not them kids,” you might say.  However,  let me note:

The warning bells about kids-getting-dumber started knelling in the 1960s. That’s when SAT scores really took a dive. The SAT, or Scholastic Aptitude Test, is the one taken by over a million college-bound kids every year. Average scores in both the math and verbal portions of this test peaked in 1963. They slid after that, steeply and then slowly, until they bottomed out in the early ‘80s. Math scores then began to rise, but verbal scores remained stagnant. Those low scoring kids of 1970 are almost 50 now. They are the ones designing dust-sized spy cameras.

And today? Well, here are the average scores for five recent years, as reported by the college board.



Doesn’t look too bad, really. To me those scores say “holding steady.” And the latest math scores are about the same as in glorious 1963. That should settle it, right? Numbers have no place to hide. If they’re the same, it means nothing’s changed. Right?


Not That Simple


Oh, but wait. Somewhere between 1963 and 1987, the college board “recentered” the scores. That means the whole scale shifted south. Someone who scored 507 in 1987 would have scored about 494 in 1963. If the numbers say the score is unchanged, that actually means kids are doing worse! Got that? “Same” means “worse.”

So kids are dumber?

Not that simple. Between ‘63 and ‘87, many more kids started taking the SAT, because those were the years America was opening the doors of opportunity to all. Masses of students from “disadvantaged” backgrounds entered the pool of college applicants. Considering the schools they came out of, it’s no surprise they scored lower on the tests, dragging down the overall statistics. And colleges today draw from an even broader segment of American society. So if scores haven’t changed, it must mean kids are smarter now. Got that? “Same” actually means “smarter.”

Oh-but-wait/not-that-simple. Since 1963, a booming test-prep industry has bloomed. Many kids now train for the SAT in classes that promise to raise their scores by as much as 100 points. So wow, if scores are unchanged since 1963, it must mean students are dumber now. Got that? “Same” means “dumber.”

I could give you four more oh-but-waits just on the SAT, but you get the point. The soil under every statistic is crawling with worms.

One more example—I can’t resist:

A massive study done in 1970 showed that 25 million adult Americans were illiterate. A similar study released in 1992 put the number closer to 85 million. Now can we panic?

No, not yet. Look closer. Between 1970 and 1992 the definition of “illiterate” changed. In 1975, if you could sound out the word “bus schedule,” you were literate. Today, if you can read every word in the bus schedule but you can’t use it to catch a particular bus, you’re illiterate. I’m not saying the new definition is wrong. I’m just saying you can’t tell—from these numbers—if illiteracy has gone up or down.


Lets Consult Some Experts


I called Tom Williamson, a former president of the Psychological Corporation, one of the big three of American test publishing. “Do you think kids are kids getting dumber—”

“No.” His answer was so emphatic and immediate, it almost preceded my question. “We always tend to complain about the achievements of the current generation and exaggerate the accomplishments of our own.”

True of me, certainly. Why, when I was a kid…

“I think both schools and kids are doing a better job than they ever have,” Williamson went on. “You have to take into account that classrooms are much more diverse now. With mainstreaming, you’ve got kids with physical and emotional problems in regular classroooms. Students who used to be excused from taking standardized achievement tests are no longer excused If you test a broader range of kids you’re going to get a slightly lower score.”

Williamson then brought up the “mystique of testing” question, which is: Do standardized tests really show whether kids are getting dumber? “We test what’s easy to measure, not necessarily what’s important,” said Williamson. “The tests are used to make important decisions—they have to hold up in a court of law. So anything that’s ambiguous, by its nature, is not going to be on a standardized test. There is no test for common sense. There is no test—yet—for ‘situational intelligence.’”

He’d get no argument from the Educational Testing Service, the people who created the SAT. I talked to Tom Ewing, Communications Director of ETS. What I got from him was a carefully crafted statement that sounded like boilerplate created to beat back the millions of reporters who call in every day to ask, “Are American kids getting dumber?”

His bottom line: The SAT scores can’t tell you.

Why not?

“Because,” he said, “the sample is self-selected.” In other words, students themselves decide who among them will take the SAT. There are no controls.

Suppose you go to a mall and weigh everyone who lets you. Then a month later you go back to the same mall and weigh everyone who lets you. If the numbers are higher the second time, you can’t conclude that people are getting fatter.

Ewing told me the best and most reliable statistics to look at on this question are put out by the National Assessement of Educaitonal Progress. Without getting into details, that would be The Government.

What’s so great about their numbers?

First, their mission is just to get a snapshot of how we’re doing. Second, to get the best picture, they get a representative sample of all students: all walks of life, all parts of the country, all GPAs, every ethnic group—the works.

They test every two years at 4th, 8th, and 11th grades, and they’ve been doing it since the sixties. What they forge out of all this is something they call…


The Nation’s Report Card


So I looked up their numbers. For reading (which is the subject people are hollering about the most these days) the scores look like this:



To me, we’re back where we started. Those numbers say, “Holding steady.”

So is that my conclusion? Kids are the same as ever? Actually, no. You could probably rip the lid off those numbers too, and use them to prove that kids are getting dumber. Or smarter. I am, however, prepared to set forth one conclusion without qualms:


I don’t know if kids are getting dumber.


You may not think that’s much of a conclusion. But I beg to differ. Not too many other people are publicly drawing this conclusion. Take a look at this opening sentence from an article in Headway magazine, written by Wayne Williams, a professor at George Mason University:

For decades now, we’ve known about the scandalous, broad-based decline in the academic preparation of our high school students.



Have We Really?


In the face of such certainty, I believe I’m staking a real position when I say, loud and proud: “Beats me.”

In other words, before we mount our steeds, draw our swords, and yell “Charge!” let us be sure we have an enemy. Otherwise, I say, we might thunder off in all directions, swinging at windmills and jousting with cows.

And I’m too old for that. Let the kids do it.

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