The College Board is trying to figure out why many colleges are experiencing declines in their average SAT scores this year.
In a memo to admissions officers,  the board said that it believed that there was a four-to-five point decline, on average, comparing scores this year to last, excluding the new writing test. A "small additional decline" may be evident when all scores for the year are compiled. Based on the size of the decline, colleges should feel that it is "valid" to compare students' scores on this year's exam to those from previous years, the memo said.
But many colleges are reporting larger declines -- in the range of 10-20 points. And several admissions officers said that they were concerned because other measures of applicant quality -- class rank or courses students take in high school -- were either holding steady or improving. Typically, admissions officers said, such measures and SAT average scores would rise and fall together. And the College Board had assured colleges repeatedly prior to the changes in the SAT over the last year that score comparability would not be hurt.
"It's certainly curious and unusual," said Stephen Farmer, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where the average SAT score is down 12 points this year -- while all other measures of applicant quality are up. Farmer said that officials of the College Board have been "very diligent" in working to try to figure out why scores dropped and what it means.
Similar declines have been reported systemwide at the University of California, which has not seen declines in measures of quality aside from SAT scores.
Privately, some admissions officials were less charitable than Farmer is, noting that they were hearing from colleague after colleague about larger drops than the College Board was reporting. For the College Board, any new concern about the SAT couldn't come at a worse time. The board has been facing criticism,  ridicule and at least one lawsuit for scoring errors on the October 2005 SAT, and for a series of announcements in which the acknowledged extent of the scoring errors grew.
On Tuesday, Gaston Caperton, president of the board, was defending its procedures at a New York State Senate hearing called over concerns about the accuracy of scores. Caperton's testimony  did not mention the latest concerns.
In its memo to admissions officers, the College Board said that the declines may be caused by "changing test taker patterns, including a trend of some students taking the test less frequently." The board said that "we believe that this decrease in repeat test-taking may account for some of the average score decline" because re-tests commonly increase a score by 30 points on reading and math combined.
Farmer of Chapel Hill said that he didn't think applicants would be hurt because they are competing against one another.
But other admissions officials aren't sure. Bob Voss, dean of admission at La Salle University, in Philadelphia, said he is concerned. His institution saw a 10 point drop. In talking to his colleagues at other campuses, he said, "I haven't found anyone who thinks it's true" that the score decline has been as small as the College Board has said. Voss said that his applicants this year are notably improved in class rank.
One person's SAT score and class rank may not correlate as expected, he said. "But you can look at 5,000 of them and it means something," he said. "I'm seeing scores that are just amazing to me."
And Voss said that many colleges do make decisions based on SAT scores. At his institution, for example, some students who are admitted with relatively low SAT scores are encouraged to enroll in enrichment programs. "We may have put people into that program who didn't need to be there," he said.
Several admissions officials and high school guidance counselors said that the SAT score situation has been the topic of considerable discussion in the last week or so. Chiara Coletti, a spokeswoman for the College Board, said via e-mail that "not a significant number of colleges" have contacted the board about the issue. She said that nine colleges had alerted the board to declines, and that the board then decided to send out the memo "proactively" to admissions officers, and that not many had since expressed concern.
Coletti said that the College Board did not plan to notify test takers at this point of the concerns about the scoring decline, in keeping with the board's approach of not sharing incomplete cohort results. Some students might find the information on the College Board Web site, she said. It appears there under the headline "206 SAT Cohort Averages" on the portion of the site for educators. Admissions officials said that applicants appeared unaware of the issue. "Telling students specifically about average scores to date for a part of their cohort wouldn't seem to serve them," Coletti said.