Combined math and reading SAT scores for the high school class of 2007 were the lowest in eight years — a trend the College Board attributed largely to the good news that a more diverse pool of students is taking the exam.
Last spring’s seniors scored on average 502 out of a possible 800 points on the critical reading section of the country’s most popular college entrance exam, down from 503 for the class of 2006. Math scores fell three points from 518 to 515.
Scores also fell three points on the writing section, which is still in an experimental stage, from 497 to 494.
Last year, after the College Board lengthened and redesigned the exam, scores took an unusually steep stumble of seven points. This year’s further drop could renew questions about whether scores on the new exam are compatible with the old one, as the College Board assured educators would be the case. Scores on the rival ACT exam, reported earlier this month, rose this year.
But the College Board, the nonprofit membership group that owns the exam, insisted Tuesday that the declines were within normal historical fluctuations and not significant.
Officials offered several explanations, but returned repeatedly to the broadening pool of SAT test-takers and subtly characterizing their exam as the more populist of the two tests.
Growth beyond traditional base
The overall number taking the SAT rose only slightly from last year, to about 1.5 million. But the College Board was eager to emphasize the exam’s growth beyond its traditional base of students who have been groomed their whole lives to prepare for college. Twenty-four percent of test-takers had a first language other than English, up from 17 percent a decade ago. Thirty-five percent of this year’s SAT-takers would be the first in their families to attend college.
Some cities such as Pittsburgh are encouraging more students who aren’t on the traditional college ladder to take the exam. Maine now requires all students to take the SAT. The percentage of test-takers there rose from 73 percent to 100 percent, but that caused math and reading scores to fall a combined 71 points, by far the largest decline of any state.
“They have taken a very progressive stand in trying to get more and more students to go to college,” College Board President Gaston Caperton said of Maine at a news conference Tuesday in Washington. “The larger the population you get to take an examination, it obviously knocks down the scores.”
The number of black students taking the SAT rose 6 percent, and the number of test-takers calling themselves “Other Hispanic, Latino or Latin American” (a group that does not include Puerto Ricans or Mexican Americans) rose 27 percent.
The College Board noted that by some measures, the gap between some test-takers and the overall cohort has narrowed. But it remains large, and there were only mixed improvements among different racial groups.
Combined reading and math scores for blacks slipped one point to 862, scores in the category “Mexican or Mexican American” rose two points to 921 and scores for Asians rose four points to 1092.
“A couple points here and there aren’t super significant,” said Brandon Jones, national director of SAT and ACT programs at Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions. “Definitely the demographic changes are what we see as the headline.”
ACT scores rose a bit
Figures released earlier this month on the rival ACT exam showed a slight increase — from 21.1 last year to 21.2, on a scale of 1 to 36 — for the class of 2007.
The SAT is still bigger, but the ACT is growing faster. About 1.3 million students took the ACT, a 7 percent increase from the class of 2006, compared with the 2 percent increase for the SAT.
“The SAT is the longtime established leader in college admissions tests,” said Laurence Bunin, head of the SAT for the College Board. “The ACT is a relatively newer product and has more room to grow. But kids who have been taking the SAT are still taking it. They’re taking it as their primary test.”
Robert Schaeffer of the group FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said the declines show “the College Board failed to keep its promise that the revised SAT would remain a consistent measuring tool.”
The SAT has historically been more popular on the East and West coasts, while the ACT has been more popular in the Midwest and inland western states. But more and more students are taking both exams to try to improve their college resumes.