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Opinion

A plan to fix what ails SAT-land

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Photo - SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 26:  SAT preparation books are seen on a shelf at A Clean Well Lighted Place For Books bookstore August 26, 2003 in San Francisco. The College Board today reports significant gains in both SAT math and verbal average scores, with each rising three points from last year marking the highest level for math scores in more than 35 years, while verbal scores matched the level last reached in 1987. At the same time, more students took the SAT than ever before, which indicates a growing need and desire for higher education.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 26: SAT preparation books are seen on a shelf at A Clean Well Lighted Place For Books bookstore August 26, 2003 in San Francisco. The College Board today reports significant gains in both SAT math and verbal average scores, with each rising three points from last year marking the highest level for math scores in more than 35 years, while verbal scores matched the level last reached in 1987. At the same time, more students took the SAT than ever before, which indicates a growing need and desire for higher education. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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SAT scores on reading and writing are down nationwide this year, with reading scores at a 40-year low. The numbers were dismal enough that the College Board, which administers the SAT, interpreted this year's results this way in a Tuesday press release: "[O]nly 43 percent of SAT takers in the class of 2012 graduated from high school with the level of academic preparedness associated with a high likelihood of college success."

Some have chalked up this year's poor SAT performance to the fact that more students are taking the test now than before, but this argument misses the real point. Despite years of significant and increasing investment, American secondary education is not improving sufficiently -- not pushing an ever-greater number of students to meet college standards.

College Board President Gaston Caperto said its findings "should serve as a call to expand access to rigor for more students." To do so, the College Board suggests honors and/or Advanced Placement courses in addition to a core curriculum. For anyone searching for something more specific, let me present classical education, the focus of a growing number of private, Catholic and public charter schools in the D.C. area, including the school where I serve as headmaster. I propose a seven-point game plan that can be implemented in any secondary school in the country.

One, require math and science through senior year. If poor SATs are not convincing enough, studies consistently rank American students well below math and science students in other countries. In math, the ultimate curricular goal is calculus. Algebra is the grammar that literate math students must have for the rest of their lives, but calculus is where so much of the action is in college. In science, the goal is fluency and competence in the biological and physical sciences.

Two, drop the smorgasbord of literary choices in high schools and adopt a core reading list of works that make students think hard about the most important things. It is not politically correct to say so, but there are no better selections to meet this objective than the Western greats. No one has topped Plato on the psychology of the tyrant, nor Dante on the hell humans foment through injustice. No one has yet bested Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen or Agee on human roles and the human experience from love to death.

Three: Reintegrate that once-great staple of American education, Latin. Students who study Latin do better on the verbal part of the SAT.

Four, teach literature in the context of Socratic seminars. They are interactive, fun and made for all readers, something sorely lacking in the teach-to-test culture so prominent in schools today.

Five, integrate the STEM disciplines -- science, technology, engineering and math. The linchpin is computer science. Place it strategically so that advanced math and science can be done utilizing some language unique to computers. The computer is a gift to the modern student. The kind of adaptability computer literacy provides is vital for students' future studies and work.

Six, restore the place of fine arts. Human beings are, by their very nature, made to create beauty. Schools, then, should foster the fine arts among all students and not consider them only as extraneous.

Seven, establish the analytic essay as the core of writing instruction. Every student is capable of organizing his or her thoughts. The essay is the best mode of organization for a range of writing students.

None of the points in this plan, of course, is a new idea. Together, however, they provide the necessary rigor for success. Just check out the SAT scores and subsequent college grade-point averages of classical program graduates.

Andrew Zwerneman is a teacher and the head of school at Trinity School at Meadow View in Falls Church, Va.

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