Teachers Could Have Predicted the Decline in SAT scores; “Students Just Don’t Read”

October 13, 2011 — Leave a comment

Honestly? I am not surprised about the recent drop in the verbal SAT scores. At least once a day, I will hear a student grouse,”I hate to read.” I hear students whine about the length of books. I have students ask in class, “Are Spark Notes available for this book?” Too many students skim the first and last pages to feign understanding. Too many students admit they have not finished a book they started. Too many students prefer to watch the movie than read the book.
Teachers in my English Department are not surprised when we get the results of reading check quizzes. Sadly, we have come to realize that student would rather fail a quiz then spend time reading to prepare themselves.


Well, reading is a sedentary and solitary activity. Reading demands attention. Reading contends with the demands for student time in and out of school including sports, school club activities, employment. Reading requires uninterrupted blocks of time.

Technology now complicates how reading is accomplished. Students can be engaged in reading through any one of a multitude of digital devices. These platforms, however, are not exclusively reading platforms. A book needs time to “hook” a reader; a device can interrupt that introductory period.  A student can simply click over to another stream of graphics and information should there be a hiccup in reading attentiveness.

In short, with all the demands and digital distractions, many students are experts at gathering information, but simply have not practiced reading.

According the the Washington Post article, What the Decline in SAT Scores Really Means by Valerie Strauss, “Newly released SAT scores [2011] show that scores in reading, writing and even math are down over last year and have been declining for years. And critical reading scores are the lowest in 40 years.” the total drop in critical reading was three points. Even more alarming was the statistic that, “critical reading scores in 1972 were 530; today they are 514.”

So, how do teachers combat this trend? What steps can teachers implement to try to correct the falling scores and move them in the opposite direction? Since teachers cannot control those factors outside our classrooms, I suggest teachers control reading in our classrooms. Against the cacophony of today’s hyper-connected world, teachers must carve out class time for quiet reading. Teachers, especially language arts teachers, must also allow for student choice.

Quiet time in the classroom may be the only time a student can read without distractions, and teacher supervision can contribute to creating this atmosphere.  Quiet time in the classroom can provide an opportunity for a book to capture a student’s interest, for a author’s voice to take hold of the imagination. Even short periods of time, 10-20 minutes a day twice a week, will yield roughly 15-30 hours of quiet reading time during school year. More time means more practice, and there is a well-established correlation of reading time with high standardized tests scores.  Equally important is allowing students to have the authentic experience of choosing  what they read.

As early as 1988, a seminal study titled Growth in Reading and How Children Spend Their Time Outside of School published in the Reading Research Quarterly followed the the academic success of  5th grade students who read voluntarily (Anderson, R., Fielding, L., & Wilson, P.). The study noted that “It was also discovered through these same interviews that students who were in schools where they were given opportunities to read self-selected materials and were given access to materials that they were personally interested in reading were more likely to engage in voluntary reading than those in classrooms where these practices were not evident.” A follow-up article to this study by Linda G. Fielding and P. David Peterson offered a layman’s argument for voluntary reading in the article Reading Comprehension: What Works (Fielding_Pearson_1994). The 1988 study and follow up in 1994 made the argument that the critical time to create voluntary readers was in grades 5 and 6. However, with the trend of decreasing reading scores, all grades should adopt the recommendations of the study.

So, while teachers may not be surprised in the drop in the SAT reading score, they may be surprised to find out that the solution was outlined in the research published 23 years ago. That solution is to give students the chance to read in class, the chance to choose a book to read. To practice reading is critical to the practice of teaching.

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