The SAT's Growing Gaps

August 27, 2008

The average score on the SAT remained steady for the class of 2008 -- with the critical reading (502), mathematics (515) and writing (494) scores all unchanged from last year.

As is typically the case, the College Board said that the results were encouraging. “Student interest and participation in the SAT has grown to historic levels, and our outreach into minority, low-income and other underserved student groups is yielding tremendous results,” said Gaston Caperton, president of the board.

What College Board officials didn't note, however, was that this year's overall flat scores are the result of averaging out very different results for different ethnic and racial groups. Asian and white students saw their scores increase this year, by 5 and 4 points, respectively, across the three parts of the SAT. Score averages for minority groups other than Asians were down by 6 to 8 points across the three exams.

When the ACT -- the main competition for the SAT, and an alternative that appears to be capturing a larger share of the testing market -- reported its scores this month, the results also showed Asian scores increasing at rates greater than those for other groups. But there was much less of a gap between the changes in average scores of other minority students and white students. The gaps among racial groups for both tests are crucial. One reason many colleges have ended requirements that all applicants submit test scores is their discomfort relying on a system that produces such different results based on race and ethnicity and on which scores continue to correlate with wealth.

On all three parts of the SAT, the scores of every income bracket are higher than all of the brackets below. And this year, while College Board officials noted an increase in the proportion of test takers receiving fee waivers, the percentage of SAT takers from the highest income bracket rose while the percentage in the lowest bracket fell.

SAT Scores by Race and Ethnicity, 2008

Group Critical Reading 1-Year Change, Reading Math 1-Year Change, Math Writing 1-Year Change, Writing Total 1-Year Change
American Indian 485 -2 491 -3 470 -3 -8
Asian American 513 -1 581 +3 516 +3 +5
Black 430 -3 426 -3 424 -1 -7
Mexican American 454 -1 463 -3 447 -3 -7
Puerto Rican 456 -3 453 -1 445 -2 -6
Other Hispanic 455 -4 461 -2 448 -2 -8
White 528 +1 537 +3 518 no change +4

SAT scores continue a longstanding pattern of following family financial income. Students with family incomes of more than $200,000 had an average math score of 570, while those in the $80,000-$100,000 cohort had an average of 525 and those with family income up to $20,000 had an average of 456.

The College Board waives SAT fees for low-income students, and board officials have noted steady increases in the number of such waivers. But the issue of wealth and SAT success has received increased attention this year because the College Board announced plans to change its policy on students who take the SAT multiple times.

Until now, students had the right to do so, but all scores were reported to colleges, so a student who made an impressive score only after taking the SAT many times and using a test-prep service would be visible for having done so. Under the new policy, the College Board will allow students to submit only one set of scores. Critics have said that this is an advantage to wealthier students in two ways. First, they are the ones who can afford coaching services to improve scores over multiple administrations of the test. Second, the fee waiver is only permitted twice, so poor students effectively have a limit while wealthier students can take the SAT again and again.

In recent years, the College Board's annual reports have featured data showing an increasing share of the SAT test-taking population in the $100,000+ level of family income. (By contrast, the most recent federal data on household income reports a median for the United States of just over $50,000.) In past years, the $100,000+ category was the highest category, and it grew from 21 to 26 percent from 2005 through 2007. This year, the College Board broke up the category into five, while merging some of the lower income categories.

But comparing last year's income levels to this year's reveals that the $100,000+ cohorts combined went to 30 percent from 26 percent last year. Meanwhile, the percentage of test takers reporting family incomes of up to $20,000 fell to 10 percent from 12 percent.

College Board officials said at a briefing that the number of repeat test takers this year was "stable," but did not provide details at the briefing or in response to multiple inquiries. The policy shift announced this year on multiple administrations of the test is similar to that of the ACT, which has been gaining in recent years in its share of the test-taking market -- even as both tests have boasted about generally steady increases in the number of people taking each test.

An analysis prepared by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing -- a critic of both tests -- found that the total number of students who took the ACT this year was 94 percent of the figure for the SAT. (Some take both and would be counted twice.) In 1986, the SAT had a much healthier lead, with ACT testing totals matching only 73 percent of the SAT total.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, attributed the relative decline in the SAT's market share to an increase in the number of colleges making standardized testing optional and to the growing popularity of the ACT. He noted that the latter test makes the writing exam optional, while it is required on the SAT as part of a revamping of the test. Shaeffer called the revised SAT "a flop," and pointed in part to the continued correlation between wealth and success. "Because average SAT scores dramatically rise as family income increases, its use in the admissions process gives another leg up to children from wealthy households," he said.

Laurence Bunin, senior vice president of operations and general manager of the SAT, said at the College Board's press conference that he wasn't concerned about the growing use of the ACT. "We don't view this as a horse race," he said.

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