Last year’s average SAT scores for college-bound seniors were the lowest in nearly three decades, the not-for-profit College Board disclosed yesterday. The news, which directly contradicts other evidence that student achievement is on the rise, has educators and policy makers searching for explanations–and some are questioning once again whether the SAT, by far the most relied-upon indicator of college success, is an accurate measure of the skills that today’s students should possess.
In the wake of the College Board’s announcement, some policy makers and educators have questioned whether U.S. colleges and universities should continue to rely on the test as part of their admissions criteria; still others say alternative forms of assessment should be used to better gauge students’ chances for success in the 21st century.
For 2006, combined scores for mathematics and critical reading dropped by seven points, or just under one percentage point, from the previous year. Average critical-reading scores slipped by 5 points, to 503, while mathematics scores dipped 2 points, to 518. On average, the decline in critical-reading skills was more pronounced for male students, dropping 8 points to 505; female students slipped by just 3 points, for an average score of 502. In mathematics, both genders saw a 2-point decline in scores, to 536 and 502, respectively.
The news comes just two weeks after administrators for another popular college-prep test, the American College Test, or ACT, announced the largest jump in scores on its college entrance exams in 20 years. Test administrators for both sides have offered little in the way of explanations for why the scores went in such different directions.
SAT administrators blamed the decline on a new version of the test, which for the first time included a writing section. Officials said the new test likely influenced test-taking habits and contributed to a decline in the number of students who opted to take the test a second time. Historically, the College Board reports, students who retake the SAT have seen their scores jump as high as 30 points or more. Each section of the new SAT, including the writing section, has a scoring range of 200 to 800 points, for a total of 2,400. The revamped test now runs 3 hours and 45 minutes, including a 25-minute non-scored section, and is more than an hour longer than previous versions, according to information provided by the College Board.
“When a new test is introduced, students usually vary their test-taking behavior in a variety of ways, and this affects scores,” College Board President Gaston Caperton said.
Critics, however, say the results are just the latest in a series of problems that point to why colleges should intensify the search for alternative measures when formulating admissions criteria.
The revised exam, introduced in March 2005, has been widely criticized for a variety of reasons, including its extended length, higher cost, and imperfections in its new writing section. Compounding matters, the College Board continues to battle criticisms stemming from scoring errors made on SAT exams administered the previous year (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=6257).
“For decades, the College Board has claimed that SAT scores are a common yardstick that could be used to compare high-school classes over the years,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, also called FairTest, in a statement about the results. “As recently as this spring, they assured test takers and admissions offices that scores from their ‘new’ SAT would be consistent with the previous version. Now they have to explain how and why the revised exam led to lower scores.”
News of the drop in scores comes less than a month after test administrators announced a substantial increase in standardized scores on the rival ACT. Administered by Iowa-based ACT Inc., the ACT is one of the SAT’s top competitors. The test, which has five components, versus the SAT’s three, is billed as an achievement test designed to measure what students learn in school, whereas the SAT is an aptitude test built to measure inherent reasoning and verbal skills.
In 2006, the ACT reportedly was administered to 1.2 million students, or about 40 percent of the nation’s 3 million graduating seniors, compared with nearly 1.5 million high school seniors who took the latest version of the SAT. Some students took both tests.
When ACT results were released Aug. 16, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings pointed to those increases as evidence that widespread reforms orchestrated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act were paying dividends.
In a statement, Spellings said that the jump in ACT scores “reflects the progress our schools have made in raising standards and improving accountability,” though she stopped short of calling the results an all-out victory.
“Unfortunately, less than half of all test-takers met the College Readiness Benchmark in math; for science, the number was one in four,” noted Spellings. “This is too low. The ACT findings clearly point to the need for high schools to require a rigorous, four-year core curriculum and offer advanced coursework, so that our graduates are prepared to compete and succeed in both college and the workforce.”
When contacted by an eSchool News reporter on Aug. 29, Education Department officials declined to comment on the latest batch of SAT scores.
At the College Board, test administrators downplayed the decline, saying the 2-point drop in math scores across the board represents one-fifth of one question on the SAT, while the 5-point dip in critical-reading scores on this year’s test is equivalent to one-half of one question.
As a result of the declines, however, FairTest’s Schaeffer said he expects more colleges and universities to consider adopting alternative admissions policies to replace the SAT and other metrics he considers antiquated.
First administered in 1926, the SAT remains the nation’s most popular standardized test. Though the exam is still the most widely used college entrance exam nationwide, at least two dozen institutions of higher learning, including the College of the Holy Cross, Providence College, Drew University, Lawrence University, and most recently, George Mason University in Virginia, have dropped the SAT as a prerequisite for many or all applicants.
Currently, 26 of the top 100 liberal-arts colleges in the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings do not require SAT or ACT scores, according to FairTest. All told, more than 735 accredited, bachelor-degree granting institutions reportedly have test-optional policies.
The College Board
U.S. Department of Education