SAT records biggest score drop in 31 years, with changeover to new exam cited

Published 4:33 pm Friday, September 1, 2006

The high school class of 2006 got stuck with a new, longer version of the SAT and didn’t fare well on it. Average reading and math scores fell a total of seven points — the sharpest decline in 31 years.

Experts agreed the dip in combined math and critical reading scores on the college entrance exam was related to the new version of the test — but differed as to how. The updated exam, with a new writing section, also features more advanced math questions and replaces analogies with more reading comprehension.

Average reading scores fell from 508 to 503 and math scores fell from 520 to 518, the College Board announced Tuesday, with the changes hurting boys more than girls.

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Boys’ reading scores fell eight points, while girls’ dropped just three. And girls scored 11 points better than boys on the new writing section. Boys’ and girls’ math score fell two points each to 536 and 502, respectively.

The College Board, which owns the exam, downplayed the drop, saying it amounts to a fraction of one question per exam. The board’s explanation: about 3 percent fewer test-takers, out of 1.5 million, tried the exam a second time. Combined math and reading scores typically rise 30 points when a student retakes the test.

The College Board also insisted fatigue wasn’t to blame. The new exam has been expanded from three hours to three hours, 45 minutes, and can take more than a full morning counting prep time and breaks. Some parents and fair-testing advocates predicted the longer exam would cause scores to decline, but the College Board said its research showed no drop-off in student performance as the test goes on.

Still, the results will spark debate over whether the College Board — also facing criticism over 4,000 incorrectly scored exams last year — was able to deliver a new test that is comparable to the old one.

The new scores also stand out because just two weeks ago the rival ACT exam reported its biggest score increase in 20 years.

“It does show how meaningless the test is as a measure of educational quality, that technical changes in the test can significantly alter the (scores),” said Bob Schaeffer, an SAT critic and public education director of the group FairTest. “It’s the test, not the education, that’s being measured.”

Christine Parker, executive director of high school program development at test-prep company Princeton Review, said the College Board has always called even small increases important, so it’s surprising to see it downplaying the decline.

“This is just the latest in a long line of bad news,” she said. “They’re in a very defensive posture.”

The results were not a surprise in the academic community. The College Board had previously indicated scores would be down this year after numerous colleges began reporting the trend.

Average reading scores for black students rose 1 point from 433 to 434, while math scores fell two points from 431 to 429.

The College Board lists three categories for Hispanic students. Scores for Mexican-Americans rose three points overall, Puerto Ricans’ fell two points and scores of students who identified themselves as “Other Hispanic” fell 11 points.

Girls’ average overall score of 1506 out of a possible 2400 remains 26 points below boys’ average, but the addition of the writing section and changes in the reading section helped them narrow the gap. Parker said the shift in emphasis from vocabulary to reading comprehension favored girls.

“Interpreting language that’s in front of them — girls do better at that,” she said.

Many colleges said they would continue to accept scores from the old SAT as the new exam was rolled out. That prompted some students to take the test early in their junior year and not to try the new exam. Some also waited to take the exam until later in their senior year — perhaps to have more time to prepare — which may have precluded them from retesting.

Comparing only scores from students’ first tests, math scores actually rose one point and critical reading scores fell three points, said College Board Vice President of Research Wayne Camara. That suggests the test may have been marginally harder but that the decrease in retesting was a significant factor.

Another factor limiting retesting may be migration to the ACT. The number of SAT test-takers in this year’s class declined slightly to about 1.47 million while the number of ACT test-takers, about 1.2 million, rose slightly. There is no way to determine how many students took both exams, but ACT numbers in traditional SAT states like Connecticut and New Jersey rose this year, suggesting more high-achieving students are trying both. Most colleges accept either.

“We definitely have seen more of that in the last few years,” said Princeton Review’s Parker.

The College Board also released information about the new writing section, which includes a 25-minute essay. The College Board said in 97 percent of essays, which are graded on a 12-point scale, the two readers agreed on the score or differed by just one point. Scores on the other 3 percent of essays were resolved by a third reader.

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