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Introducing ‘Decline Watch’

Introducing ‘Decline Watch’

We actually kicked this off with David’s post yesterday, but we’re now making it official. In this regular Passport feature, we will be tracking signs of U.S. economic and political decline — and the "rise of the rest," especially China. 

We don’t intend this to be an excercise in schadenfreude — we’re Americans ourselves and don’t wish any misfortune on the country — but there does seem to be an emerging conventional wisdom on American decline in the foreign-policy media that’s worth tracking. We’ll also hopefully use the column to puncture a few bogus decline trend stories.

Each post, we’ll choose a datapoint or article that purports to show a sign of American decline and rate it from 1 to 5. Here’s the scoring system:

1: We’re totally screwed. Start learning Mandarin.

2. Being a superpower was nice while it lasted.

3. Stay calm and carry on.

4. Decline, schmecline. We’re gonna be just fine.

5. USA! USA! 

Today’s sign of decline … falling SAT scores:

Average scores on the college acceptance test, the SAT, fell across the nation this year, with the reading [comprehension] score for the high school class of 2011 falling three points to 497, the lowest on record, according to a report on Wednesday by the College Board, which administers the exams. 

The average writing score dropped two points, to 489, and the math score was down one point, to 514. 

Douglas McIntyre at AOL business makes the case

What these test scores suggest is that in general, Americans who enter the work force in the next one to five years will not be as well educated as many of their foreign counterparts. That spells bad news for America’s ability to lead the world in science and other critical disciplines. With a workforce whose education and skills are in decline, the U.S. will struggle to hold its lead in the industries that are key to our economic future.

Verdict: 3. Falling test scores are obviously not a good sign. On the other hand, the fact that English scores, in particular, are falling can be attributed to increasing national diversity and the fact that parents from around the world still want to raise their kids in the United States. The New York Times reports that "27 percent of the nearly 1.65 million test-takers last year came from a home where English was not the only language, up from 19 percent a decade ago." And while average scores may be falling, the number of students receiving high scores on math — about 700 — have increased by 20 percent over the last five years. 

But any way you slice it, low income and minority students continue to lag behind. The numbers are nothing to be proud of. 

Feel free to nominate any American decline stories you see. (No Jersey Shore references please.) E-mail Joshua [dot] Keating [at] foreignpolicy.com.