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Posted at 6:15 AM ET, 09/19/2007

Mike Gravel: Americans Are Getting Dumber

By Michael Dobbs
Mike Gravel
"Americans are getting fatter and dumber... If things are going bad, just remember who put these people in power." -- Former Sen. Mike Gravel, Democratic candidate for president, Yahoo/Slate/Huffington Post debate mashup, September 2007.

To be fair to Gravel, he made this incendiary claim in response to a question from the late-night TV comedian Bill Maher, who cited statistics showing that obesity had risen to an "all-time high," SAT scores have declined, and 38 per cent of fourth graders cannot read at basic level. Challenged by Maher to "tell Americans that they're getting fatter and dumber," Gravel obliged, adding for good measure that Americans would "get the government they deserve." But is the underlying data correct?

The Facts

There seems little doubt that Americans are getting fatter. According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the incidence of obesity among adults increased from 15 per cent in 1980 to nearly 33 per cent in 2004.

The "stupider" part is much more controversial. Average SAT scores have declined a little over the last two years. But Wayne Camara, vice president of research at the College Board, which administers the SAT, said the test is not a good indicator of the intelligence (or stupidity) of the overall population. Less than fifty per cent of high school graduates take the SAT. The main reason that SAT scores have been declining is that more students are taking the test, and the test-taking population is getting more diverse. Over the last two decades, math scores have gone up steadily, while reading scores have remained flat.

A better indicator of the educational skills of the overall student population is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which bills itself as the "Nation's Report Card." NAEP looks at all students, not just a self-selected sample. According to NAEP, the math skills of American nine-year-olds have been rising steadily since 1982 and reached an all-time peak in 2004. Go USA!

[Chart: Percentage of Nine-Year-Olds With Beginning Math Skills]

The Pinocchio Test

Gravel and Maher are right on obesity but wrong on stupidity. We award them three Pinocchios, to be shared equally between them, if they can figure out the math. (About our rating scale.)

By Michael Dobbs  | September 19, 2007; 6:15 AM ET
Categories:  3 Pinocchios, Candidate Watch, Education, Health  
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