Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Declining SAT Scores: What Happened?

The New York Times has the awful news that SAT scores have had their biggest decline in decades:
The average score on the reading and math portions of the newly expanded SAT showed the largest decline in 31 years, according to a report released yesterday by the College Board on the performance of the high school class of 2006.

The drop confirmed earlier reports from puzzled college officials that they were seeing lower scores from applicants. The average score on the critical reading portion of the SAT, formerly known as the verbal test, fell 5 points, to 503, out of a maximum possible score of 800. The average math score fell 2 points, to 518. Together they amounted to the lowest combined score since 2002.

Officials of the College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the SAT, dismissed suggestions by numerous high school guidance counselors that students were getting tired out by the new three-part test which now runs three and three-quarters hours, rather than three.

“Fatigue is not a factor,” Wayne Camara, vice president for research and analysis at the College Board said at a news conference. “We are not trying to say that students are not tired. But it is not affecting, on the whole, student performance.”

Instead, the officials attributed the drop to a decline in the number of students who took the exam more than once. The board said 47 percent of this year’s students took the test only once, up from 44 percent last year. The number taking the test three times fell to less than 13 percent from nearly 15 percent.

Students typically gain 14 points a section when they take the test a second time, and another 10 or 11 points a section on the third try.

The SAT writing test includes a 25-minute essay, which counts for about 30 percent of the writing score, and 49 multiple-choice questions on grammar and usage, which count for the rest. The average score on the writing section was 497 out of a possible 800, the board said.

Girls performed better than boys on this section of the exam, averaging 502 versus 491 for boys. That partly offset girls’ lower scores on math and reading, but did not close the longstanding score gap between boy and girls.

Gaston Caperton, the president of the College Board, pointed out that the decline in scores represented less than one-half of a test question in reading and one-fifth of one test question in math. Still it was the largest year to year decline since 1975, and officials expressed concerns about the overall performance of American students.

“The data does suggest that as a nation, critical reading and writing are lagging behind the progress we are making in math,” Mr. Camara said.

The SAT score decline contrasted with the increase in scores on the ACT exam, the other primary college admissions test. This month, ACT reported its biggest score increase in 20 years. The ACT also has a writing section, but it is optional.

Seppy Basili, senior vice president at Kaplan Inc., the education and test preparation company, said the new SAT test undoubtedly affected scores because students were less familiar with it and because fewer students repeated it. But Mr. Basili said he thought the length played a greater role than the College Board acknowledged.

“It is not just that the test is 3 hours and 45 minutes,” he said. “It is that the whole experience is five hours or more,” he said, factoring in things like breaks.

Most states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, saw scores decline in reading and math. In New York, average reading scores fell 4 points to 493 and math scores 1 point to 510. In Connecticut, reading was down 5 points to 512 and math 1 point to 516. In New Jersey, reading fell 7 points to 496 and math 2 points to 515.

In New York City, Joel I. Klein, the chancellor of the education department, said, “My only reaction is, it shows that we have to continue to work harder.”

The number of students taking the SAT nationally fell slightly, by about 10,000 students, to just under 1.5 million, or about 48 percent of more than 3 million students who graduated from high school this year.

At a time when many elite colleges have expressed interest in recruiting more low-income students, the number of students from families earning $30,000 or less who took the SAT fell by more than 13 percent, to 183,317, while the number from families earning $100,000 or more rose 8 percent, to 225,869.

Mr. Camara said that of the information collected about students, the income data was the least reliable. He said he did not know what accounted for the decrease in low-income students taking the test.

Counselors in high schools where the SAT has long dominated, said more of their students were taking the ACT. Some have said that in the wake of the College Board’s disclosure this spring that it had mis-scored more than 5,000 exams, they have urged their students to consider the ACT.
To me, it's particularly troubling that fewer students from economically disadvantaged homes are taking the examination.

I want to see more of these kids graduating from top-tier schools. I think that it's healthier for our society.
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