The College Board, as always, hung a smiley face on it, but the latest SAT results are a real bummer. (Readers should go here and here.) Overall scores are flat or down. Almost every subgroup is flat or down. Gaps are widening slightly by race, income, and parental education. Indeed, the tidiest relationships and smoothest curves are those that continue--as they have for as long as anyone can remember--to show the steady upward progression of average SAT scores as family incomes and parents' education rise.
If that's not enough to depress you about the seeming permanence of America's education stagnation, recall edition after edition of National Assessment results, also showing 17-year-old and 12th grade scores stagnant or declining.
Then recall the recent ACT report indicating that barely one in four high school students taking that organization's tests in 2009 are fully prepared for college-level academic work. Then recall the year-in, year-out flatness of our high school graduation rate. Now laugh if you have spotted any good news regarding the readiness of American adolescents to face successfully the challenges of higher education, the workforce, adulthood, and citizenship. I can't find it. (OK, OK, I found one: Asian-American SAT scores are up yet again.)
What does this say about 26 years of education reforming since A Nation at Risk? About all the billions we have spent, all the laws we have enacted, all the five-part plans we have embraced, all the blood, sweat, and tears that teachers, superintendents, and policymakers have shed?
For starters, it says that our reform efforts, earnest and costly as they've been, haven't seriously penetrated America's high schools. Then it says that current moves (e.g., the "Common Core" national standards project of the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers) to align high-school exit expectations for students to college and workforce readiness are urgently needed, indeed long overdue.
But then it must cause one to ask: What is going to give traction to those expectations? Will real states use them to confer and withhold real diplomas from real students? Will colleges actually use them for admissions purposes? Will employers truly base hiring decisions on them? This is pretty much what did not happen with such earnest, praiseworthy antecedent efforts as Achieve's "American Diploma Project." States pledged their troth. Then nothing much changed on the ground.
Yet if the standards exert no traction, where will it come from? What will cause the typical U.S. high school student to study harder and learn more? What is going to make her teachers more effective? Her school more demanding? Her parents more engaged?
The College Board can smile all it wants to. Nobody else should.
This piece originally appeared on Forbes.com.