Upon releasing the latest set of annual entrance-exam scores from across the country, the creators of the SAT and the ACT saw strikingly similar elements in the results. Record numbers of test-takers. Stagnating scores in certain categories. And a need for high school students to take more demanding courses.
Officials from purveyors of the nation’s two most widely used admissions tests linked lagging scores in different sections of the exams to high school students’ failure to take enough of the core classes needed to prepare them for higher education.
Average scores on the verbal portion of the SAT declined slightly, to 504 on an 800-point scale, in the 2001-02 testing cycle, 2 points below the previous year, and the same level as two decades ago. Math scores rose to 516, or 2 points higher than the year before, according to the College Board, the New York City-based organization that sponsors the SAT. More than 1.3 million students took the exam last year.
The dip in verbal scores could not be explained simply by a larger pool of SAT-takers with limited English skills, College Board officials said. Instead, they pointed to what they say are lapses in high school instruction. Students are still taking four years of English, but too many high schools are putting emphasis on the arts, theater, and “multimedia” study, including television, at the expense of composition and grammar, contended Wayne Camara, the vice president of research and development for the College Board.
“On the whole, [students] are taking more math prep courses,” College Board President Gaston Caperton said at a Washington press conference. “Apparently we haven’t paid the same attention to the teaching of English.”
Emphasis on Writing
In response to the verbal drop, College Board officials said they were planning to form a national writing commission to study the role of writing in precollegiate education, and recommend ways to improve it.
ACT officials voiced similar worries. National average scores on their test, taken by more than 1.1 million students in 2001- 02, dipped to 20.8 from 21.0 the year before, the first decline in five years. The decrease did not surprise ACT officials, who attributed the scoring slip to more students who said they were not intending to go to college taking the exam, particularly from two states.
For the first time, Illinois and Colorado required all 11th graders to take the ACT as part of their statewide achievement programs. As a result, ACT officials said the pool of test-takers included 30,000 more students than in the previous year who indicated on registration forms that they were not planning to attend college.
Sixty-two percent of those tested in 2002 said they had taken college-prep courses, compared with 64 percent the year before.
“Colleges and universities may not be for everybody, but everybody should have the opportunity to go,” said Dan Carstensen, the vice president for education resources at the ACT, based in Iowa City, Iowa. “We’re as interested in this issue [improving high school curricula] as anyone else.”
But Christina Perez, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, speculated that SAT and ACT administrators were more interested in promoting their exams to prospective clients than improving K-12 learning. Earlier this year, the College Board said it will add an SAT writing test in 2005. The ACT will offer an optional writing test starting in 2004.
Ms. Perez, whose Cambridge, Mass.-based organization is a prominent critic of what it sees as flaws and abuses in standardized testing, said that by pushing for more demanding courses in writing and other areas, both testing services could more effectively sell themselves to states and school districts as ways of measuring achievement of high school students—as Illinois and Colorado are doing now.