Assessment

SAT Scores Fall as Number of Test-Takers Rises

By Caralee J. Adams — September 14, 2011 6 min read

Average SAT scores fell across the board this past year—down 3 points in critical reading, 2 points in writing, and 1 point in math.

This year, 1.65 million students in the high school graduating class of 2011 took the college-entrance exam, up from 1.6 million for the class of 2010, according to results released last week.

The increase in test-takers can lead to a decline in mean scores, the College Board says, because more students of varying academic ability are represented.

Regardless of the drop in mean scores, according to a press release from the New York City-based College Board, the test’s sponsor, “there are more high-performing students among the class of 2011 than ever before.”

Each section of the test is scored from 200 to 800, with a 2400 for all sections combined being perfect. Critical-reading scores in this year’s report compared with last year’s dropped from 500 to 497, math from 515 to 514, and writing from 491 to 489, for an overall score change from 1506 to 1500—all statistically significant. Since 2007, the first year that College Board June cohort data are available, critical reading and writing scores have each had a 4-point decline, while math scores have remained stable.

The new total test-taking figures show the gap further narrowing between the SAT and the rival ACT, which unveiled its numbers last month with 1.62 million students in the class of 2011 taking the test, an all-time high for the Iowa City, Iowa-based testing company as well.

New Benchmark

SAT Mean Scores Over 10 Years

By Race/Ethnicity

4SAT C1s

SOURCE: The College Board

The College Board unveiled a new SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark this year that reflects the level of academic preparedness linked with the likelihood of college success and completion. The College Board calculates that 43 percent of SAT test-takers from the class of 2011 met the benchmark score of 1550, indicating a 65 percent chance of achieving a B-minus average or higher in the first year of college.

The SAT benchmark is intended to be used to measure the college readiness of groups of students such as those in a particular school or district. It is not intended to measure individual performance.

The purpose of the benchmark, the College Board said, is to help schools, districts, and states evaluate whether more students are graduating college-ready from one year to the next.

The ACT has provided its own college-readiness benchmarks since 2006. In August, the ACT reported that 25 percent of its test-takers had scores in English, reading, math, and science that correlate with higher chances of earning B’s or C’s in entry-level courses—up from 21 percent in 2005.

The College Board developed the new SAT benchmark through rigorous research based on a nationally representative sample of students at more than 100 colleges and universities, and it is applicable to all students across different majors and coursework, said Kathleen Fineout Steinberg, the executive director of communications for the board.

“Given the critical importance of increasing rates of college retention and completion for America’s students, there is a clear need for a valid and reliable standardized measure of college readiness,” she said, adding that the new benchmark has been statistically linked to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Fee Waivers

Of the 2011 SAT test-takers, students from minority ethnic and racial groups made up 44 percent, an increase from 42 percent the previous year.

Achievement gaps persist. In reading, while white students’ average score was 528, it was 451 for Latino students, down from 454 last year. For African-American students, it was even at 428. In math, whites in this year’s cohort had a mean score of 535, while Latino students’ scores rose from 462 to 463 and blacks were even at 427. Writing dropped for blacks from 418 to 417, for Latinos from 446 to 444, and the mean score for white students was flat at 516. All changes were statistically significant.

The College Board reports that more students who qualify for low-income fee waivers are also taking the SAT. More than 21 percent, or 351,068, of test-takers, in the class of 2011 qualified for the program, up 77 percent from 2007.

Fees are a barrier for some students, said Jim Miller, the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. His Arlington, Va.-based organization is talking with SAT and ACT officials to try to simplify the process that allows low-income students to take the exams without having to pay the fees, so students can better understand that option.

“Both testing organizations have tried to be more open, transparent, and available to disadvantaged students,” Mr. Miller said. “But there still are different rules that are confusing to both counselors and schools, and we are having a good dialogue to simplify that process.”

Students who completed a core curriculum—four or more years of English, three or more years of math, three or more years of natural science, and three or more years of social science and history—performed a combined 143 points higher on the SAT than those who did not. Test-takers in Advanced Placement classes or honors courses also did significantly better, underscoring the push for students to take more rigorous high school classes.

Bob Wise, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and a former governor of West Virginia, says the increase in the number of students taking the SAT is positive, but the college-entrance-test results clearly show the need for a lot more work in K-12 schools. “The workforce needs and skill needs in our society are rising, unfortunately, much faster than our SAT or ACT scores,” he said.

Mr. Miller says he doesn’t pay too much attention to the individual year changes of a few points, and larger numbers of students may well account for the drop in scores.

“When you expand the pool, you are more likely to have additional numbers who are new to the testing, as well as representing a population that may not have been as college-focused and college-ready. Therefore, I’d expect to see some slight decline,” he said.

The College Board notes that 79 percent of SAT takers this year also reported taking the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, and that those who did scored on average 145 points higher on the SAT.

Common-Standards Link?

Mr. Wise said that the SAT results should be a clear message to Congress and state legislatures not to give up on the effort to implement the common-core standards and college-career-ready standards in English/language arts and math.

“What SAT is telling us is that we made some progress. More students are saying they want to go to college. More students are taking the exam. We made some small gains, but we aren’t there by any means,” he said. “The challenge is matching the SAT to where it is we know our children need to be, which is college- and career-ready education.”

Eric Sparks, an assistant director of the American School Counselor Association, says that while a one-year small drop in SAT scores is something to take note of, he’s more interested in the long-term trend.

“If again next year there is a small decrease, and if it’s over multiple years, it’s something to be definitely concerned about,” he said. The real interest for his association members, he said, will be the performance of individual schools and comparing that with the national average.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2011 edition of Education Week as SAT Scores Fall for Class of 2011 as Number of Test-Takers Rises

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