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Key to Improving SAT Scores Could Be Rigorous Curriculum

The SAT scores are in for the graduating class of 2011, and while more students than ever are taking the college-entrance exam, the performance of test-takers is down in every category. (See full story here.)

The average SAT is now 1500, compared with 1501 for last year's cohort. Since 2007, critical-reading and writing scores have declined 4 points each, while math has managed to remain steady.

The College Board attributes the dip to the larger, more diverse participant pool that includes more first-generation, ethnic and racial minority,and low-income students. Still, the downward trend in reading and writing is cause for concern, says Wayne Camara, vice president for research and development for the College Board.

While there is no one explanation, he says educators need to look at curriculum as a factor. For example, in 2001, among the 18 percent of students who took less than four years of English in high school, the average critical reading score was 500. In 2011, about 17 percent take less than four years, and their scores have dropped to 462. The decline in critical-reading scores wasn't as great for students who took honors or AP English.

In math, however, SAT scores in 1991 have grown from an average of 500 to 514 this year. Camara says this is related to reform efforts in which students are taking four and five years of math, including advances classes such as calculus. "We are looking and wondering if those kind of efforts in English and reading and writing would benefit students," he says.

This year, the College Board introduced a new measure: the SAT College Readiness and Career Benchmark. Research determined that students who get a 1550 on the SAT have a 65 percent chance of achieving a B-minus average or higher in the first year of college. In the results released today, 43 percent of test participants met that benchmark. SAT worked with researchers who work on the National Assessment of Educational to come up with the measure. The figure seems about right when you think that about one-third of all high school students are considered college- and career-ready by NAEP and the new SAT benchmark reflects that 43 percent of those with the intention of going to college are ready.

The College Board was firm in its assertion that the SAT benchmark is intended to be used to measure the college readiness of groups of students—not individual students—so states can evaluate whether more students are graduating college-ready from one year to the next. Why not use it as a gauge of individual college readiness? Camara says the benchmark is only one factor and students' grades, course rigor, and other attributes should be looked at together in admissions decisions.

For students who had a parent with a bachelor's degree, 60 percent were college-ready compared with 25 percent from families without a college education. Participation in this year's SAT test was 12 percent higher for first-generation college-goers, compared with last year.

The ACT, which has had college-readiness benchmarks since 2006, saw a rise in this year's results with 25 percent of students meeting all four of ACT's standards in math, science, English, and reading—up from 21 percent in 2005.

While many follow the ACT and SAT results closely, there are critics. Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, says the SAT results released today show that No Child Left Behind and state high-stakes testing programs are undermining school quality, even when measured by other standardized exams.

"Proponents of NCLB and similar state-level testing programs promised that overall achievement would improve while score gaps would narrow," Schaeffer said in a press release. "Precisely the opposite has taken place. Policymakers need to embrace very different policies if they are committed to real education reform."

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