College & Workforce Readiness

SAT Scores Rise as Number of Test-Takers Tops 2 Million

By Lauraine Genota — October 30, 2018 5 min read
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More than 2 million students in the class of 2018 took the SAT, making it the most widely used college admission test.

A College Board report released last week showed a slight increase in the average scores: 531 in math and 536 in reading and writing, compared to the class of 2017’s 527 in math and 533 in reading and writing. (Each section is measured on a 200-800-point scale.) The 2018 average composite score is 1068, up 8 points from last year.

The number of students taking the SAT hit an all-time high: 2.1 million in the class of 2018. By comparison, the rival ACT had 1.9 million test-takers. The surge in test-taking helped the SAT reclaim its former status as the most widely used college admission test, a position ACT had held since 2012.

The ACT results released last week showed a decline in math achievement and stagnant achievement in reading. They also showed a big drop in participation.

The 2018 SAT scores showed that only 47 percent of students met both the math and reading college readiness benchmark. According to the College Board, “students who meet these benchmarks have a 75 percent likelihood of earning a C or better in a related introductory, credit-bearing college course.”

The percentage of students meeting the SAT benchmark is up only 1 percentage point from last year.

When broken down into sections, 70 percent of students met the SAT reading benchmark, while 49 percent met the math benchmark, according to the College Board figures.

It’s difficult to compare year-over-year results because the SAT has seen significant changes in its testing population, said Jane Dapkus, the vice president of college readiness assessment for the College Board, in a press briefing on Wednesday.

Second Year of Testing

It’s also the first year that all students took the redesigned SAT, which debuted in March 2016. Last year only 93 percent took the new SAT.

While it’s hard now to conclude anything from the results because it’s only the second year of the new test, and the testing population has changed, Cyndie Schmeiser, a senior adviser to David Coleman, the College Board president, said that the testing population will stabilize over time.

The increase in average scores also can be attributed to the fact that the new SAT is “so aligned” to what’s happening in the classroom, she added.

“In time, we will see changes that are true reflection in students improving their readiness over time,” Schmeiser said.

Robert A. Schaeffer, the public education director for the advocacy group FairTest and a frequent critic of standardized testing, said because it’s only the second year of the redesigned SAT, the results have “very little meaning.” Students in the class of 2018 had a chance to understand the kind of questions asked and content covered in the new test.

Growing Familiarity

“Often when there’s a new test, scores will increase in the second and third year [of implementation] as students become more familiar with the test,” he said. “It doesn’t mean underlying skills have improved at all.”

The new test has two sections instead of three, and the maximum composite score a student can get is now 1600 rather than 2400 in the previous version.

The redesigned test got rid of obscure vocabulary words, requiring students to justify their answers instead. It also covers fewer math topics. It’s shorter and has no penalty for wrong answers.

The 2018 scores show inequities similar to those of previous years. Asian-American (1223), white (1123), and multiracial (1101) students scored far above the average composite score of 1068, while Hispanic (990) and African-American (946) students scored significantly below it. The scores of Asian-American, white, and multiracial students increased from last year, but the scores of Hispanic and African-American students stayed roughly the same.

The scores also continue to correlate with parental educational background. The composite average score of students whose parents have bachelor’s degrees (1129) is higher than the average of students whose parents have only a high school diploma (1005).

The number of students who took the now-optional essay is down 2 percent from last year.

Akil Bello, an independent educational consultant based in New York City, characterized the decline as a “positive thing,” and a trend “worth watching,” because fewer colleges are requiring the essay. Students shouldn’t spend time and money on something that’s “unnecessary,” he explained.

School Day Program

The 25 percent increase in SAT test-takers can be attributed to the growth of SAT School Day, a program in which students take the SAT in their own school on a weekday, rather than taking it on a Saturday in a different school than the one they attend.

In 2017-18, 10 states (Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia covered the cost of the SAT for all their public school students. Three years ago, only three states and the District of Columbia did so.

The College Board has been pushing hard to win contracts with entire states or districts, but last December the organization also announced that schools can negotiate contracts to administer the SAT during the school day.

The New York City-based organization appears to be winning the battle with the ACT for statewide contracts. The latter lost its statewide contracts in Colorado, Illinois, and West Virginia, contributing to the big drop in its student participation for that test.

The College Board is also trying to increase SAT participation through fee waivers for low-income students, and by taking steps to identify eligible students and automatically giving them the fee waiver benefits, said Schmeiser.

While more students are taking the SAT, Schaeffer noted that hundreds of colleges are now going “test-optional,” dropping the requirement to report SAT or ACT scores, or at least de-emphasizing the use of standardized tests in admissions decisions.

Still, other experts like Stephen Sireci, vice president of the National Council on Measurement in Education, said that while the ACT and SAT don’t measure all the skills needed to succeed in college, they still “play an important role in quality education” by providing “impartial information” about students.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2018 edition of Education Week as SAT Scores Rise as Number of Test-Takers Tops 2 Million

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