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SAT Scores Take Another Dip

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Composite SAT scores dipped for the second year in a row since the college-entrance exam’s overhaul in 2005, sparking debate over the significance, if any, of such short-term declines on the closely watched 81-year-old test.

Although the drop to 1511 on a scale of 2400 Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader was proportionally slight—no section’s average score fell more than six-tenths of a percentage point—student performance declined on all three sections of the test.

The average critical-reading section score of 502 on a scale of 200 to 800 points was down just a point. But the average mathematics score fell 3 points, to 515 on a scale of 800. The average score on the writing section, now in its second year, also fell 3 points to 494 on the 800-point scale.

“I would say, ‘Hmm, it’s a warning sign,’ ” said Daniel M. Koretz, a professor of education at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, who downplayed the importance of year-to-year fluctuations in the low single digits. “Let’s see what happens over the next few years,” he said. “If we keep getting these kinds of declines, then that’s something we’ve got to start worrying about.”

Laurence Bunin, the general manager of the SAT program at the New York City-based College Board, said “the scores … are really in an expected range.” The SAT is developed and administered by the Educational Testing Service, of Princeton, N.J., for the College Board.

Wayne J. Camara, the vice president of research and analysis for the College Board, called the dip in scores since last year “not statistically significant.” But he said the declines are “primarily attributable to a larger number of minority students taking the test.”

Minority students accounted for nearly four in 10 test-takers in this year’s graduating class, making it the most ethnically diverse class of SAT-takers to date.

Moreover, Mr. Camara noted, this was the first year in which Maine’s high school seniors were required to take the SAT in order to graduate.

Difficulty the Same?

College Board officials have insisted that the new SAT, unveiled in March 2005, is no harder than the test’s older version. But in addition to the new hourlong writing section, the current exam also includes Algebra 2-based questions not found in the pre-2005 SATs, and observers have cast doubt on the College Board’s assurances.

“After they said [the scores of] last year were unusual, [this year’s scores] are starting to look like a pattern,” said Robert Schaeffer, a spokesman for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Cambridge, Mass.-based testing-watchdog group.

“It’s especially hard to explain when ACT scores were up in much the same peer group,” he added, referring to the other widely used college-entrance exam, administered by the Iowa City, Iowa-based nonprofit ACT Inc. The class of 2007’s average score on the ACT rose one-tenth of a percent over the class of 2006’s.

Mr. Bunin said, however, that “the [new] test was very carefully constructed to equate back” to the pre-2005 version of the exam.

Test-Takers More Diverse

The SAT score falloff also coincided with increases in the number of students whose first language is not exclusively English and those who come from low-income households. In the class of 2007, 24 percent of students first learned either a language other than English or another language at the same time they learned English. That’s up 1 percentage point over last year’s class, and 7 percentage points over the class of 1997, the College Board reported.

The College Board also reported a 31 percent increase over the past two years in the number of students receiving SAT-fee waivers, eligibility for which is primarily determined using federal criteria for free and reduced-price lunch.

“I am encouraged by the greater numbers of students from all walks of life who are taking on the challenge of the SAT and college,” Gaston Caperton, the president of the College Board, said in a statement.

Harvard’s Mr. Koretz also applauded the increasing diversity of SAT-takers, and suggested that score declines needed to be viewed in that context. “The kids that are being added [to the pool of SAT-takers] are from historically underserved and lower-scoring groups. That tends to push scores down,” Mr. Koretz said. He posed this analogy: “If a hospital starts bringing in more and more old patients and the mortality rate is still flat, that’s good. Old people die more.”

Thomas Toch, a co-director of the Washington-based think tank Education Sector, also downplayed the importance of one-year gains or losses on the SAT—not only because such minute shifts rarely fall outside the margin of error, but also because he doesn’t believe the exam measures learning very well.

“SAT scores are largely a function of family income; they correlate more strongly with privilege than any other factor,” he said. “We should pay more attention to NAEP [the National Assessment of Educational Progress], which measures large samples of students on more curriculum-specific matter.”

Gender Gaps Persist

Among individual racial and ethnic groups, mean SAT scores on the critical-reading, mathematics, and writing sections fluctuated in comparison with the class of 2006, but none rose or fell more than a handful of points.

Gender gaps on all three sections also remained mostly static since last year. Boys' mean score on the writing section continued to lag behind girls' by 11 points, and boys' mean score on the math section continued to best the girls' by 34 points.

Taking the long view, the mean score on the critical-reading section, formerly known as the verbal section, has declined 28 points since the class of 1972 took the SAT, according to the College Board. The mean math score has risen 6 points since then.

In sheer volume, the number of 2007 graduates taking the SAT—1.49 million—set a record. While that figure maintains the SAT’s dominance over the ACT, which was taken by 1.3 million students of the class of 2007, the gap is shrinking.

Vol. 27

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story mistated the gender gap on this year's test results. Boys' mean score on the writing section continued to lag behind girls' by 11 points, and boys' mean score on the math section continued to best the girls' by 34 points.

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