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Latest SAT Scores Continue Downward Trend, College Board Reports

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By guest blogger Caralee J. Adams

On average, high school graduates in the class of 2015 scored 1490 on the SAT, down from 1497 last year and the lowest performance since the 2,400-point scale was developed nearly a decade ago.

The College Board released the latest figures on Thursday showing achievement down from 2015 to 2014 in all three subjects—dropping from 497 to 495 in critical reading, 513 to 511 in mathematics, and 487 to 484 in writing. That's all on an 800-point scale.K-12_Dealmaking.gif

"Small changes in mean scores in either direction really shouldn't be over-interpreted," Cyndie Schmeiser, the chief of assessment for the New York-based organization that administers the SAT, said in a phone interview.  

The bottom line in the results, maintained Schmeiser, is the percentage of students who are graduating high school ready for college—41.9 percent this year, according to the College Board's benchmark—a figure that hasn't increased in the past five years.

"I find the news disappointing, but unsurprising," said Scott Thomas, the dean of the school of educational studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., in an email interview. Despite years of efforts to promote college and workforce readiness, there remains a great deal of variation in schools to help students prepare, and if inequity in resourcing does not match growth in testing, it would follow that scores would be flat to declining, he said.

"We aren't moving the needle on college readiness and that's exactly why we are redesigning the SAT," said Schmeiser.

Changes on the Horizon

The College Board will introduce a new SAT in March 2016 that officials say will reflect more of what students are learning in high school and need to know in college. Obscure vocabulary will be eliminated, along with penalties for guessing, and the essay will be optional, returning the SAT to a 1600-point scale. To address concerns over unequal access to test preparation and to improve student performance, the College Board is also offering free online practice tests in a partnership with the Khan Academy.

"The ACT and SAT are now moving to be much more performance-based than in the past," said Bob Wise, a former governor of West Virginia and the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington reasearch and advocacy group.  While the scores don't reflect that enough students are ready for college, Wise said, one positive note is that more students are taking the test—especially those who have been traditionally underserved by colleges.

Last year, 1.70 million students took the SAT, up from 1.67 million in 2014, the College Board reports.

About 25.1 percent of test takers in the class of 2015 received a fee waiver to take the exam, up from 23.6 percent in 2014 and 21.3 percent in 2011. This year 48.8 percent of SAT test takers were minority students compared to 47.5 percent in 2014.

Last month, ACT Inc. released its latest report showing 1.92 million students took the ACT—about 59 percent of the graduating class of 2015—up from 1.85 million last year, marking an increase of nearly 19 percent since 2011.

Performance on the ACT was virtually flat from 2014 to 2015 with the average composite score remaining 21.  However, about 28 percent of students this year met the college-readiness benchmarks in all four subjects (reading, English, math and science), compared to 26 percent last year. The share of test takers not meeting the benchmarks in any subject was unchanged at 31, the Iowa City, Iowa-based testing organization reported.

With the SAT, the average annual change in composite scores (critical reading, math and writing) has gone down 3.11 points since 2006. This year, the SAT composite declined 7 points—the second-biggest annual drop since the writing test was first offered in 2006.

Performance Patterns 'Defy Logic'

Jim Hull, the senior policy analyst of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., said SAT scores have been trending down over the past decade while ACT scores have remained relatively flat despite the large increase in test takers.

"It actually kind of defies logic when you compare SAT and ACT scores," said Hull.  "You would think with the dramatic gains in numbers that the ACT has gained over the last decade, those scores would have seen a decline while with the SAT, which has seen less growth, you would have seen scores remain relatively flat. But we are seeing the opposite."

Still, making sense of what the overall scores actually mean to the nation's high schools is not straightforward, which is likely why both the ACT and SAT focus more on their college-ready indicators than their overall scores, said Hull. Despite the lagging scores on college-entrance exams, more students are going to college than ever and high school graduation rates are at all-time highs, noted Hull.

On both the SAT and ACT, scores were lower for underrepresented minorities than for white students who took the exams. 

While 61.3 percent of Asian students and 52.8 percent of white students met the college-readiness benchmarks on the SAT in the class of 2015, just 16.1 percent of black students, 22.7 percent of Hispanic test takers and 32.7 percent of Native Americans did—virtually flat for all groups compared to last year. (The SAT Benchmark score of 1550 is associated with a 65 percent probability of obtaining a first-year GPA of a B- or higher in college, which in turn is associated with a high likelihood of college success.)

On the ACT, just 6 percent of African-American students and 15 percent of Latinos were college ready, according to the benchmarks for all four subjects.

With more students taking the ACT and SAT, declines in performance is to be expected, said Jeff Fuller, the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the director of recruitment at the University of Houston.

"There is an understanding or perception that the ACT is a better indicator of what is actually being taught in the classroom," said Fuller. The College Board was prompted to revise the SAT to make it more accessible to the changing demographics of college-bound students and "truly represent information that all students of today should be knowing and hearing, not just students who are coming from an environment where mom and dad went to college" or students had some test-taking preparation, added Fuller. 

The new College Board report also included figures on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, or PSAT/NMSQT, which was taken by a record 3.8 million high school students last fall, up from 3.7 million the previous year.  About 48 percent of 11th grade test takers were considered on track for college and career readiness on the latest PSAT, compared to 48.8 percent last year.

(The AP participation and performance was also released Sept. 3, and results appear in my colleague Liana Heitin's blog post today on Curriculum Matters.)

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