Last year’s average SAT scores for college-bound seniors were the lowest in nearly three decades, the not-for-profit College Board disclosed Aug. 29. 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.

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.

The news came 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.

“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.

The revised exam, introduced in March 2005, has been 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.

“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 (FairTest). “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.”

When ACT results were released Aug. 16, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings pointed to those increases as evidence that widespread reforms orchestrated by the 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.

When contacted by an eSchool Newsreporter 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 represents one-fifth of one question on the SAT, while the 5-point dip in critical-reading scores 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 most widely used college entrance exam nationwide–though at least two dozen schools have dropped the SAT as a prerequisite for many applicants.