College & Workforce Readiness

Few Changes on SAT Posted by Class of 2010

By Catherine Gewertz — September 13, 2010 5 min read
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Scores on the SAT improved a little in mathematics in the past year, but remained flat in reading and declined in writing, results released last week show.

Students in the graduating class of 2010 who took the college-entrance exam during high school produced an average score of 516 in math, 1 point higher than in each of the previous three graduating classes, but still 4 points lower than the decade’s high point, 520 for the class of 2005, according to results released by the College Board, which sponsors the SAT.

The class of 2006 was the first whose score report reflects a newly reworked SAT, which includes higher-level math questions as well as an essay-writing section.

Last spring’s graduates turned in an average score of 501 on the reading section, the same as the class of 2009, a point lower than each of the two previous classes, and 7 points below the high of the class of 2005.

The average score on the writing portion of the test was 492, continuing a steady decline since it was first given five years ago.

Each section of the test is scored from 200 to 800.

The test-taking patterns of the class of 2010 mark the first time the SAT has slipped behind its rival college-entrance exam, the ACT, in popularity. The ACT has been gaining ground, fueled partly by a growing list of states that administer the exam to all juniors or seniors.

In the most recent graduating class, more students took the SAT than ever before—1,547,990, by traditional College Board cohort measures. But nearly 21,000 more students took the ACT, which last month reported total participation of 1,568,835 for the class of 2010. Equal proportions of the class of 2010—47 percent—took the ACT and the SAT. In 2005, 49 percent of the graduating class took the SAT, compared with 40 percent for the ACT. (“Rate of Minorities Taking ACT Continues to Rise,” Aug. 25, 2010.)

New Numbers Reported

The raw-numbers comparison between the SAT and the ACT changes, however, if a typically excluded group of SAT-taking students is counted.

In past years, the College Board has excluded from its national report the scores of students who take the SAT for the first time in May or June of their senior year. This year it supplied the number of students in that group—49,339. With those students counted, about 28,500 more took the SAT than the ACT.

The College Board did not include the scores of those “later-testing seniors” in its detailed trend analysis to allow consumers to compare this year’s results with those of previous years.

SAT Participation and Scores


SOURCE: College Board

In a conference call with reporters, company officials said they reported the additional group this year—and will include them in trend analysis beginning next year—because they have been noticing an increase in that group of test-takers of 44 percent since the class of 2006 took the exam, said Laurence Bunin, a senior vice president at the College Board.

Mr. Bunin attributed the change to growth in the number of students thinking about preparing for college, a shift he welcomed as “positive news” in the nation’s push toward better college-completion rates. If the later-testing seniors’ scores are factored in, the average SAT score in each of the three tested areas drops by 1 point, a result Mr. Bunin said was not surprising since those students “may not have been focused on college preparation” until later in their educations.

One area of concern highlighted by College Board officials was the writing exam. Of the three areas tested, they said, it is the most predictive of success in students’ freshman year in college. For that reason, and because it is an “essential skill” in careers, the fact that scores have been dropping steadily every year that test has been given is of particular concern, Mr. Bunin said.

“The downward trend must be reversed,” he told reporters. “Writing must be made a higher priority in secondary and K-12 education.”

Gaps Persist

Students from some racial- and ethnic-minority groups, and those from disadvantaged families, continued to turn in lower SAT scores on average than those of their white, Asian, and more-affluent peers, patterns that have held their shape for the past decade.

In reading, for instance, white students’ average score was 528, and Asian students’ was 519, compared with 454 for Latino students and 429 for African-Americans. In math, white students outscored blacks by 108 points and Latinos by 69 or more points. Asians’ average math score was 55 points higher than that of white students.

Officials of the New York City-based College Board noted that the population of students taking the SAT has become increasingly diverse, with racial- and ethnic-minority students making up nearly 42 percent of the test-takers in the class of 2010, up from 40 percent the previous year and 29 percent in 2000.

Students’ scores continued to reflect their family income and parents’ education. Those in the lowest-income brackets, and whose parents had the least education, scored 125 points or more below their peers at the top of the family-income or parental education grids.

Clear correlations existed, as well, between students’ scores and their coursetaking patterns: Those who took more years of math or English scored better than those who took fewer, and those who took Advanced Placement or honors courses scored better as well. That held true across subjects, too; students who took four years of English, for instance, scored better on the math section of the SAT than did those who took fewer than four years, and those who took four years of math did better on the reading SAT than those who took fewer years.

FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based group critical of standardized testing, was quick to jump on the SAT report as a sign that the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires testing as part of school accountability, has failed in its stated purposes: to improve overall student achievement and close racial and socioeconomic gaps.

College Board President Gaston Caperton told reporters that while he wouldn’t dub the law a failure, he thinks it “certainly hasn’t accomplished what we must accomplish in this country. We don’t have enough students going to college. We don’t have them well enough prepared. We have to add a lot more rigor. Kids have to work harder. They have to be engaged and committed. I think it’s a great problem in this country, and something that we all have to work on.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2010 edition of Education Week as On SAT College-Entrance Exam, Class of 2010 Posts Few Changes


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