- The Washington Times - Friday, August 30, 2002

Math scores on the SAT have been on the rise for the last decade, with this year's average hitting a 32-year record high of 516. Boys continue to outperform girls, which is OK, since a decade ago only 31 percent of college-bound girls reported taking precalculus, compared to 44 percent in 2002. So, that is good news, too.

The really bad news is that fewer boys and girls are taking English composition and grammar courses compared to a decade ago. In 1992, 81 percent of high-school students took English comp vs. 67 percent today, while 85 percent of students took grammar, compared to 71 percent today.

No wonder, then, our children are functionally illiterate. They understand that the D9 bus carries them across town to Jamal's house. But ask them to write a coherent and cohesive 1,000-word essay on the consequences of teen sex and you're likely to get a rambling two-sentence paragraph about something they memorized from sex-ed about condoms and safe sex. Have mercy. Living and learning in the liberal big city.

If you think I'm exaggerating, digest this: "Verbal [SAT] scores declined in 2002 to an average of 504 for the entire test-taking population [of 1.3 million students]," the College Board said Tuesday. "The average verbal score for 2002 is just 4 points higher than that of 1992. By way of contrast, the 2002 average math score is a full 15 points higher than its 2001 counterpart."

So the latest SAT scores confirm two things. One, once we put our minds to such educational matters, our children can indeed measure up to the challenge. This is important, because there are special-interest gadflies who argue that: A) blacks don't test well, and B) grade-point averages better capture a student's intellectual capacity than test scores.

But neither of those arguments matters when admissions officers are wading and weeding through high-school seniors' applications for entry into state or private institutions.

Sadly, some school counselors and teachers are as lazy as seniors, who often learn too late what was and is expected of them.

This brings me to my second point. While the push to raise the bar regarding mathematics courses is paying off, a literate society remains elusive. In the nation's capital, for example, 37 percent of the adult population is illiterate. That is utterly unconscionable.

How can parents check their children's homework? How can parents compete for jobs? How can they apply for their share of the reparations? A new home? A birth certificate? Death certificate? Paternity claim? How … ? How … ? How …? How … ? You fill in the blanks.

Illiteracy sets in motion a whole set of circumstances that many of us never really think about. I have a dear friend who, functionally illiterate, lost his job but was too embarrassed to tell the clerk in the unemployment office that he couldn't read. He lost all his benefits. I know a high-school grad who won a scholarship to a prestigious university but left after a few weeks when he could not keep up in class. My summer after high school graduation was spent in Pittsburgh helping my illiterate grandmother apply for Social Security benefits. Rest her soul. She raised Cain ( and her cane) with us regularly about the importance of "schooling."

Too many of us allow our children our children to dismiss the opportunities of free schooling. We don't even insist that teachers give our children homework, and then insist our children fulfill that assignment. Heck, too many of us don't even insist that our children attend school.

Meanwhile, the College Board is gearing up for changes. In 2005, the SAT verbal will become the SAT Critical Reading Exam. The new verbal exam will have long and short reading sections, and there will be a new writing exam, with multiple-choice questions on grammar and written essays.

Those changes mean we need to begin gearing up, too. Swapping dollars spent on HDTV idiot boxes for books, and Madden NFL 2003 for Encarta Africana.

Those changes mean we need to keep in touch with our children's schools to make sure the teachers have what they need to do what we need for our children. It might even mean going to a high school PTA meeting for the first time, even though your child is a senior. Whatever it takes to make sure our children can read.

As my dad used to say, "I don't care what you read, but read you will."

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