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Why Plummeting ACT Scores Are Just The Beginning Of What’s To Come

Historically low ACT scores are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to bad news in American education. Dig deeper and the picture is even more distressing and urgent — here’s why.

I really like it when my predictions are right on target — especially when they are expressed to a national audience with strong opinions of their own. But in this instance, and on this particular topic, I really (really, really) hope I am dead wrong. But here it is: the 30-year low in ACT scores revealed last week is just the tip of the iceberg of bad education news. Expect much more of it in the coming months and years.

I am not being a cynical Nostradamus or a pessimistic soothsayer. Look below the headlines about historically low scores, disaggregate the data, and the bad news is more than troubling, it’s terrifying. Brace yourselves: a walloping 42% of class of 2022 graduates who took the ACT didn’t satisfy a single benchmark in the subject areas of English, reading, science, and math. In other words, almost half of all test-takers went zero for four. And if that weren’t bad enough, consider that the types of students generally taking the ACT are students who are heading in the direction of college, who we can assume are at least marginally motivated.

How bad would it be if all American high school graduates had taken the test?

But don’t start blaming COVID lockdowns and a year of distance learning. Yes, COVID made matters worse, but the decline has been in the works for some time. In 2009, the nation-wide average score was 21.1. This year it dipped below 20 for the first time in three decades, averaging 19.8.

Here is why we can expect more bad news.

Ask young Americans how they spend their time — both in and out of classroom — and they will reveal a modern lifestyle that is not synonymous with the cultivation of habits, capacities, or values leading to educational excellence. Activities that imbue gale-force cerebral benefits such as recreational reading, casual conversation, quality sleep, and healthy diets are sorely absent. Processed foods, sugary treats, and energy drinks figure prominently in the dietary landscape. Phone screens have displaced everything — other faces, other screens like movie screens, other forms of entertainment, and other relationships.

The gender divide on this score is large and getting larger. This gap is revealing and goes a long way in explaining why male students are increasingly falling behind their female counterparts at school. What do boys spend more time doing? Screens, leisure, and sleep. What do the girls spend more time doing? Volunteering, housework, socializing, and yes you guessed it, homework. The Brookings Institute recently revealed that girls outperform boys by more than 40% of a grade level in every state. Read that statistic a few times and let it sink in.

Here is another reason why there is certain to be more damning education news on the horizon. Because, as Johann Hari has explained, “Your attention didn’t collapse. It was stolen.” Learning requires sustained focus, and yet a small study of college students discovered that their ability to focus on one task lasted a mere sixty-five seconds. Other studies have shown office workers can only sustain mental focus for about three minutes.

Tech titans famously shield their own offspring from the attention-destroying devices hatched from the workshops of Silicon Valley tech wunderkinds. Tim Cook didn’t let his nephew join social networks and Bill and Melinda Gates banned cell phones for their children until they were older.

As Chris Anderson, ex-editor of Wired fully admitted, “We thought we could control it. And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”

And yet, the American classroom is endlessly accessorized with gizmos galore, providing an educational experience about as satisfying and substantive as a post-marathon soufflé. The arguments against excessive reliance on Chrome books and i-pads in the classroom come from a variety of different and insightful directions—some argue that technology cannot teach moral virtue, others fret about the correlation between device time and poor mental health.

My primary worry is that it is simply lazy teaching, asking little of our students. Too often students know the routine: come into class, grab a computer, log on, and get to work. The vanishing sheen of human contact or the lost vitality of eye contact is a real problem for the emotional and intellectual development of our children, and yet we have convinced ourselves classroom technology is an unalloyed good.

I’m not so sure.      

In the meantime, students are simply vanishing from American classrooms. In a headline that is part sensationalism, part unsettling and spooky, the gold standard of California journalism, Cal Matters, featured a headline last spring which read, “The Curious Case of California’s Missing Kids,” which begins with a quote for the ages: “We just aren’t sure where they’ve gone.” But the problem isn’t just a California problem, it is occurring nationwide. And even when students are enrolled, absenteeism, sometimes called “a hidden educational crisis,” is a constant juggernaut that schools were encountering before COVID normalized absenteeism.

Lost attention spans, titanic device addiction, copious absenteeism, an over-reliance on technology — sadly, the list could go on and on. Don’t expect a lot of positive education news in the coming years. The ship of education has a small rudder with a lot of baggage and it will take a while to turn this ship around.

Jeremy S. Adams is the author of Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation, recently released in paperback. He has taught American civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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