Media Misses the Mark on Latest SAT Numbers

This week, new SAT rankings were released by Nootroedge that placed Wisconsin at the top in the nation. This “news” was used by public school advocates as evidence that Wisconsin’s public schools are still doing a great job, despite the efforts of evil conservatives to undermine them. But is this truly the case? 

A key question to consider when comparing states on metrics like the SAT is how many students actually take the test?  In Wisconsin, the answer when it comes to the SAT is “very few.”   The 1252 score being touted by some is based on participation from just 2% of Wisconsin students. Indeed, Wisconsin ranks 48th in terms of SAT participation.  In this state, the ACT is far more common.  This presents a major problem in garnering anything useful from the data—either positive or negative—because the subset of students who take the SAT are probably not representative of the broader population of students.  Who would still be taking the SAT in this case?  Likely students who are considering elite schools in other states—in other words, primarily students from wealthy families or those likely to earn academic scholarships.  

The ACT is a far fairer metric to use in our state. Among the 21 states where more than 60% of students participated in the ACT, we rank tied for 5th in overall composite score. The top ten states are shown in the Table below. Not bad—but not number one in the nation either as the SAT rankings would suggest.  In terms of percentile ranking, this places the state average squarely in the middle at the 50th percentile 

ACT Scores by State (>60% Participation) 

As is clear from both SAT and ACT comparisons, the tests are a poor metric for making nationwide comparisons because of variation in the share of students that take each in different states.  So what is out there to make these comparisons?  The best answer is probably the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), although it is not taken at the high school level which limits it’s usefulness for assessing college readiness.  The NAEP is a national test that uses representative samples of students in each state that allow for apples-to-apples comparisons.   

In an essay last year, I adjusted the NAEP scores for student demographics.  On that metric, Wisconsin ranked 20th in 8th grade reading and 32nd in 4th grade reading. The 4th grade results are reproduced in the chart below. The state also continues to have some of the largest racial and economic achievement gaps in the nation.  While no measure is perfect, this is arguably the clearest picture of where Wisconsin stands.  And this is hardly a placement for the state to take pride in.  

NAEP Scores by State after Demographic Adjustment

Mark Twain once wrote that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” In our policy work, we pride ourselves on only putting out information that we believe could stand up to the scrutiny of an academic peer-review processBut when people misuse data like some have been wont to do with the SAT results, it proves that there is an element of truth in Twain’s claim It is factually true that Wisconsin ranked first in the nation on the SAT.  But to claim that this says anything about the state of public education in the state shows someone either misunderstands how this result came about or is intentionally being misleading to support the education establishment 


By Will Flanders, PhD

Will Flanders, PHD

Will Flanders, PHD

Research Director

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