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SAT Scores Drop, Gaps Grow

August 26, 2009

Average SAT scores dropped slightly for those who graduated from high school this year, as many more students and a more diverse group of students than in the past took the exam. While College Board materials stressed those increases in participation, the data released also included news that may concern many educators: gaps in scores -- both by race and ethnicity, and by family wealth -- grew this year.

College Board officials generally play down (and did again so this year) slight variations in average scores, saying that movement of a point or so doesn't mean much. But this year's averages -- 501 for critical reading, 515 for mathematics and 493 for writing -- continue a period of small declines or stagnant scores.

SAT Averages, 2005-9

  Critical Reading Mathematics Writing
2005 508 520 n/a
2006 503 518 497
2007 502 515 494
2008 502 515 494
2009 501 515 493

Data on the breakdowns by race and ethnicity show a widening gap between Asian American test takers and other groups. Adding all three portions of the SAT, Asian Americans gained 13 points, while American Indians gained 2 points and all others lost. Last year, Asian Americans led only with the mathematics average, but this year their average score overtook that of white students on writing, too.

These ethnic gaps are crucial for both educational reasons and political ones. Many of the growing number of colleges that are going SAT-optional have expressed discomfort with tests on which there are such stark -- and growing -- differences in averages by race and ethnicity.

SAT Scores by Race and Ethnicity, 2009

Group Critical Reading Score 1-Year Change, Reading Math Score 1-Year Change, Math Writing Score 1-Year Change, Writing Total 1-Year Change
American Indian 486 +1 493 +2 469 -1 +2
Asian American 516 +3 587 +6 520 +4 +13
Black 429 -1 426 +0 421 -3 -4
Mexican American 453 -1 463 +0 446 -1 -2
Puerto Rican 452 -4 450 -3 443 -2 -9
Other Latino 455 +0 461 +0 448 +0 +0
White 528 +0 536 -1 517 -1 -2

The growing gaps are even more visible when examined by income level. As in past years, there is a fairly direct pattern: the more money a student's family earns, the higher the SAT scores. But this year's figures show not only the gap, but its growth. The following table shows that for those at the low end of the income scale, SAT gains this year were quite modest. For those from wealthy families, the gains were significant.

SAT Scores by Family Income, 2009

Income Level Critical Reading Score 1-Year Change, Reading Math Score 1-Year Change, Math Writing Score 1-Year Change, Writing Total 1-Year Change
0-$20,000 434 +0 457 +1 430 +0 +1
$20,000-$40,000 462 +0 475 +2 453 +0 +2
$40,000-$60,000 488 +0 497 +1 476 -1 +0
$60,000-$80,000 503 +1 512 +2 491 +1 +4
$80,000-$100,000 517 +3 528 +3 505 +1 +7
$100,000-$120,000 525 +3 538 +4 516 +4 +11
$120,000-$140,000 529 +3 542 +5 520 +3 +11
$140,000-$160,000 536 +3 550 +4 527 +2 +9
$160,000-$200,000 542 +7 554 +6 535 +6 +19
More than $200,000 563 +9 579 +9 560 +8 +26

Laurence Bunin, senior vice president of the SAT Program at the College Board, said that this year's totals continued a gradual trend in which slightly more students are taking the SAT only once. While College Board officials say that it is understandable that many students may want to take the test twice, they say that they discourage taking the test more than that. (Critics of the College Board say that its recent shift to allowing students to select the scores to send to colleges, possibly hiding the number of times that they took the SAT, sends the opposite message.)

In 2009, 48.2 percent of students took the SAT only once, up from 46.5 three years earlier. Bunin said he did not have data to distinguish between those who took the SAT twice (within what the College Board recommends) and three or more times.

 

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