College & Workforce Readiness

SAT Results 2016: It’s Complicated

By Catherine Gewertz — September 27, 2016 4 min read
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So you’d like to find out how well the class of 2016 scored on the SAT, you say? Well, have fun with that.

Normally at this time of year, we report the scores and trends for the college-admissions exam. But this is a weird year, a year so full of disclaimers, caveats, and partial cohorts that it makes it pretty tough to tell you anything at all. That’s because some students took the newly redesigned SAT (March 2016 and later), and the lion’s share of them took the old one (January 2016 and earlier). The College Board’s report is here.

So we’re gonna walk through this nice and calm-like, taking occasional deep breaths along the way. Because you’re gonna need them. You’re gonna feel frustrated. You’ve got lots of company.

SAT performance:

We’ve got median scores only for the old SAT, and they show a slight drop across the board. The College Board says that since there were only three administrations of the new SAT, releasing scores would not fully represent the characteristics and performance of a complete, typical cohort. We won’t know how students are performing on the new SAT until this time next year, although anecdotal reports already show many are getting higher scores, albeit on a different scale.

SAT participation:

Like a Facebook relationship status, it’s complicated. The College Board divvied up the numbers into several chunks, making it impossible to compare participation for the entire graduating class of 2016 to classes from earlier years. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

New SAT only: In the first three administrations of the new exam, in March, May, and June, 1.36 million students took the test. That’s 180,000 more than the number who took the old SAT during the same three months in 2015: 1.18 million. (These numbers include students from any graduating class, not just the class of 2016.)

New and old SAT combined: These numbers show how many students in the 2016 graduating class took any form of the SAT, new or old, through June 2016: 1.68 million. (The College Board got the 25,600 year-to-year increase by revising the 2015 data. More on that in a second.)

Old SAT only: These figures show that more students in the class of 2016 took the old SAT through January 2016 than did so during the same period in 2015. The looming changeover to the new SAT might have encouraged a last-minute rush.

Remember that little revision we talked about a few minutes ago? Take another look at the participation data, above, for the new and old SAT, combined, through June 2016. You’ll see that the 2015 figure is 1,655,557. That’s a change from last year’s publicly reported 2015 participation figure for that period, which was 1,698,521. Without that revision, SAT participation from the class of 2015 to the class of 2016 would have shown a drop of nearly 17,400 students.

(This isn’t the first time the College Board has revised the way it calculates participation data. In 2010, it included a group of students in its count that it hadn’t included before. That revision allowed it to report a bigger participation figure than the ACT and preserve its spot as the most popular college-entrance exam, a distinction the College Board has since lost.)

Cynics and close watchers of the competitive battle between the College Board and ACT Inc., will be quick to raise their eyebrows at the timing of this year’s revision, since the College Board is under pressure to ensure that its new SAT is a success in the public eye. It also comes as the College Board is pushing hard to grab market share from ACT by winning statewide testing contracts (and it’s making headway; see my blog post about that here.). The College Board has also been shadowed lately by allegations that it short-cut aspects of the SAT’s design in ways that could undermine its validity, a charge it has vehemently denied.

“It’s a little fishy, because that revision is completely in their favor,” said James S. Murphy, who keeps close tabs on changes in the SAT or ACT as the director of tutoring for the Princeton Review’s New England region. Even so, Murphy allowed that he “might be willing to buy their explanation” for the 2015 revision.

The College Board’s explanation comes from Jack Buckley, the organization’s senior vice president for research. Buckley told me in an interview last week that the 2015 figure had to be revised downward because of what the company learned as it built a new system that integrates data from the SAT, PSAT, and Advanced Placement tests. Once data from those tests flowed into the same place, College Board staffers found inconsistencies, from one test to another, in the way about 43,000, or 2 percent, of students pencilled in their grade levels. The 2016 calculation, and the 2015 revision, use those adjusted grade-level reports.

Revision or no revision, the College Board is still trailing the ACT in popularity: In the class of 2016, 2.1 million students took the ACT. ACT, too, saw a drop in students’ scores. Both ACT and the College Board attributed the decrease to a wider variety of students’ taking the test, including those with weaker academic or test-prep backgrounds.

For stories about the College Board’s push to win statewide contracts, see:

College Board’s Statewide SAT Contracts Reaching Twice as Many Students

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.