Average scores on the reading, math, and writing sections of the SAT test held steady for the second consecutive year, according to a new report by the College Board on the high school class of 2008. But for critics of standardized testing, the bigger story drawn from the data is the slight decline in student participation since a longer, more expensive version of the SAT test was introduced in 2006.
Officials with the College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the SAT, said they were pleased that scores didn't dip despite a larger and more diverse group of test-takers this year. Nationwide, a record 1.5 million students took the test. Forty percent of those test-takers were minorities, and 36 percent said they were the first in their families to plan to go to college, the most of any year.
Students from the class of 2008 scored on average 502 on the critical reading section, the same score from a year ago. Still, that's the lowest average since 1994. In math, the average score was 515, also unchanged from last year and 5 points lower than the 2005 average of 520, the highest of any year. The average writing score was 494, which was the same as last year (3 points lower than the score posted in 2005, when writing was added to the SAT). Scores are on a scale of 200 to 800.
By contrast, a record 1.42 million students from the class of 2008 took the ACT. The average ACT composite score declined slightly this year, 21.1 compared with 21.2 in 2007, on a scale of 1 to 36. Although the SAT continues to be the nation's most widely-taken admissions test, the ACT is closing the gap.
Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Opening Testing, which is critical of standardized testing, says the SAT test has seen a drop in student participation since it was revamped to include a writing section. In 2005, the participation rate was 49 percent, compared with 45 percent this year, according to the group's analysis of College Board data. During the same time, the center found that the ACT has added 235,690 test-takers. Schaeffer said that skepticism of the revamped SAT and the perception that the ACT test is a more "consumer-friendly exam" (it doesn't require students to take a writing exam) are two factors that may explain the changes in participation rates. The ACT's increasing rate of participation also might be explained by the fact that several states, including Illinois, Michigan, and Colorado, require that all students take the test.
College Board officials dismiss these comparisons between the two college admissions tests, "It doesn't cause us to re-evaluate the test," said Lawrence Bunin, senior vice president of the College Board. "We don't see this as a horse race." Bunin says that high school grades and SAT scores, including those from the new writing section, are the strongest predictors of college success, and that studies by the University of California and the University of Georgia bolster those findings.
Girls continue to outperform boys on the writing section of the SAT (501 vs. 488). Girls' average score on the reading section was 500, while boys' was 504. But that was a narrowing of a gap that stood at 7 points a decade ago. Girls continue to lag in math, where boys on average scored 33 points higher (533 vs. 500).
The College Board report also shows that black and Latino test-takers continue to trail Asian-American and white students. Black students on average scored 430 in critical reading and 426 in math; the averages for Latino students were 455 and 461; and those for white students were 528 and 537. Asian-American students, on average, scored 513 in reading and 581 in math.
College Board officials stressed that those students who take the most challenging high school courses, including Advanced Placement and honors classes, and who have good study habits—not cram sessions before the test—perform the best on the SAT.