Political commentators use the term "Dukakis in the Tank" as shorthand for a public relations effort that backfires. Arizona is in the midst of a home-grown version.
On August 15th, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) issued a press release proclaiming "Horne: Latest ACT College Entrance Exams are Further Proof that Arizona Students Perform Above the National Average."
What, you may wonder, is "Dukakis in the Tank" about that? The percentage of Arizona students taking the ACT is far less than half of the national average. The national average is 42%, the Arizona average is 18%.
Another recent ADE press release touted above average SAT scores without noting participation rates as they compare to other states. The College Board, which administers the SAT, explains why this is completely inappropriate:
Average SAT scores are not appropriate for state comparisons because the percentage of SAT takers varies widely among states. In some states, a very small percentage of the college-bound seniors take the SAT. Media and others often rank states, districts, and schools on the basis of SAT scores despite repeated warnings that such rankings are invalid.
The same day the ADE touted above average SAT scores, the Arizona Republic noted that our scores fell again for the second year. The ADE's response? More students are taking the SAT and that's responsible for the drop.
We shouldn't be proud of above average scores on national tests if scores drop the moment we expand the participant pool the scores drop. You can't have your tank and eat it too.
Matthew Ladner, PhD, is vice-president for research at the Goldwater Institute
Arizona Department of Education: News Releases
Ariz. SAT scores drop 2 years in a row
College Board: Using Aggregate SAT Scores