State SAT Scores Reflect Spending

University Testing

An article in the Spring 1996 Harvard Educational Review provides more ammunition for those who argue that comparing state K-12 education systems on the basis of college admissions exam results is a classic case of test score misuse. Writing in Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildering: The Use and Misuse of State SAT and ACT Scores, Brian Powell of Indiana University and Lala Carr Steelman of the University of South Carolina conclude that state rankings change considerably when they are adjusted for factors such as the percentage of students taking the test and their high school records.


The article is a follow-up to a Powell-Steelman report published twelve years ago, which concluded that ranking states by SAT scores was misleading and unjustified.


The new study goes further, closely investigating the validity of the claim frequently made by conservative politicians and journalists that test scores prove states which spend less on public education produce better academic results. When the percentage of each state s high school graduating class taking the exams is factored in, however, the authors find a strong positive connection between spending and SAT scores. On the ACT, there is a clear relationship between spending and exam results even before any adjustment for participation rates.


In their final sentence, the authors make a point that is valid for all attempts to compare school systems based on standardized test results. They conclude: To the extent that these scores have been and will continue to be used by others, it is incumbent upon academicians to inform the public about how these scores have been misconstrued and, in turn, how these misinterpretations may have reckless implications for social policy.