As several news outlets have reported, this year’s SAT reading scores are the lowest they’ve been in four decades (see Washington Post and NPR). There are several reasons that could factor into this decrease. One thing experts point to is the increased number of low-income students taking the test. This kind of trend, however, can’t fully explain why 56% of our high school graduates are not ready for college-level work. Nor should it matter, in an ideal world, whether your parents are low-income or not when it comes to your success as a student. The fact remains that there must be more we can do, as parents, teachers, and school officials, to improve reading levels and overall achievement levels for rich and poor alike, across genders and races.
Statistics suggest that the single biggest factor that influences student achievement is their parents’ income. This is obviously not a direct relationship; there are many ways in which the lifestyle of a poor family versus a middle-class or wealthy one influences a child’s study habits, from the quality of food and living space to the education level of the parents. Something that practically all parents can do to help their children, however, regardless of income, is read to them and with them. This is something parents can do for their children from their earliest stages of learning, a beneficial activity that can encourage students to study while in school, and help them to retain what they’ve learned while on break.
Studies by PISA have shown that when parents read with their children, regardless of their income level, the difference in achievement is significant (as cited by Thomas Friedman in “How About Better Parents?”). Other ways for parents to help their children do better in school include talking with them about their day when they come home and telling them stories. Though the PISA study focused on students under 15 because that’s when the PISA test is taken, there’s no reason these and other techniques won’t help your children. Several techniques for parents to help their teenagers through school are included in my book Stop Parenting and Start Coaching.
Not only can parents encourage reading, many schools love to assign a “summer reading list” to help kids keep up their reading skills over the summer. Still, this is just one example of an increase in standards that is needed all over the American school system. The SATs and the ACT test both record dropping levels in high school graduate learning, so how can we help these students learn better? It would make sense to start with their basic study skills. Researchers have found that of all the study techniques, high schoolers are least likely to choose the most effective ones, specifically self-testing (see Sarah D. Sparks’ article, “Research Finds Students Short on Study Savvy”). Other areas schools should focus more on include:
- Critical thinking, or thinking strategies which transfer well to real-life situations.
- Career-focused learning, practical skills that engage students and help them become more employable.
- Social and emotional skills, which correlate directly with achievement scores and are highly valuable to employers.
- Writing and other communication skills, which could be one of the biggest differences between high-performing and low-performing students.
Increasing the rigor of the classroom and including relevant topics such as these in the curriculum would improve our schools significantly, so long as they were combined with solid teacher support. For more information on how high school students can improve their study skills, see my book Study Skills For High School Students, which is designed to help every type of learner find the study method that will deliver the best results.
Parents, teachers, and leaders from all over the system need to work together to make these kinds of changes in the lives of America’s children, and that sort of focus — a focus on the children — is the only thing that can inspire a unity of effort. Our children deserve a world in which opportunity is there for the taking, one where school is a lifting force that empowers them to dream big and gives them the tools to create a fulfilling life.