Stagnant SAT Scores

Total average is unchanged while some racial gaps grow -- and ACT gains in market share on admissions testing.
September 14, 2010

The overall scores on the SAT were unchanged for those who graduated from high school this year, with the critical reading average remaining at 501, the mathematics average going up by 1 point to 516 and the writing score dropping by 1 point to 492.

Scores in all three sections are down modestly from where they were a few years ago. The College Board continued its push, in releasing the scores Monday, to argue that the scores are a measure of academic rigor and that the SAT encourages college preparation. Board officials noted that students who take recommended college preparatory courses do much better than those who don't. "There are no tricks and no shortcuts to college readiness," said Gaston Caperton, the College Board's president.

But the figures released Monday also show a continuation -- and in some cases a growth -- of gaps by racial and ethnic group that are much larger than the one or two point shifts in the national averages. The College Board also announced Monday that its figures were counting more students than in the past who took the SAT later in the school year -- a move that some College Board critics see as a way to hide the extent to which the ACT has gained ground on the College Board in the entrance examination market.

Here are the the total figures. (Male students had higher averages than females on the reading and mathematics portion, and females scored higher on writing -- with only modest changes from last year.)

SAT Averages, 2006-10

Critical Reading Mathematics Writing
2006 503 518 497
2007 502 515 494
2008 502 515 494
2009 501 515 493
2010 501 516 492


The more significant changes are evident when race and ethnicity are factored in. Asian-American test takers gained 13 points this year (across all three parts of the SAT), followed by Mexican Americans, who gained 7 points. Comparing scores over two years, Asian Americans gained 26 points, Mexican Americans gained 5 points, and all other groups lost ground (modestly). Asian Americans now outscore African Americans by 90 points on reading, 163 points on math, and 106 points on writing. Asian Americans score better than all other groups on all parts of the test -- except that the white average exceeds the Asian American average on the reading portion. On that portion of the test, however, Asian Americans gained 3 points this year, while white scores were flat.

Group Critical Reading Score 1-Year Change, Reading Math Score 1-Year Change, Math Writing Score 1-Year Change, Writing Total 1-Year Change Total 2-Year Change
American Indian 485 -1 492 -1 467 -2 -4 -5
Asian American 519 +3 591 +4 526 +6 +13 +26
Black 429 +0 428 +2 420 -1 +1 -3
Mexican American 454 +1 467 +4 448 +2 +7 +5
Puerto Rican 454 +2 452 +2 443 +0 +4 -5
Other Latino 454 -1 462 +1 447 -1 -1 -1
White 528 +0 536 +0 516 -1 -1 -3

Another demographic trend that continued this year -- as in all past years -- was the apparent link between family income and SAT scores. At every income level, those with higher family incomes do better than others on all three portions of the SAT. And those who indicate that they plan to apply for financial aid have lower scores, on average, than those who say they will not apply for financial aid. Those who don't think they will need aid, for example, have an average math score of 554, compared to 510 for those who expect to apply for aid.

Another of the demographic indicators -- all cited by those who criticize the role of the SAT -- is parental education. The more education parents have, on average, the better a student's SAT scores. On reading, for example, those whose parents have only a high school degree have an SAT average of 464. Those whose parents have a bachelor's degree have an average of 521.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, released an analysis of the numbers that said they show the failure of the testing movement embraced by No Child Left Behind and the College Board. Proponents of testing, he said, "promised that overall achievement would improve while score gaps would narrow,” Schaeffer said. “Precisely the opposite has taken place."

The SAT vs. the ACT

The College Board report said that it covered 1,597,329 college-bound seniors in the class of 2010. That is slightly more than the 1,569,000 students who took the ACT this year. The ACT -- whose participation is up 30 percent since 2006, a period in which the SAT has had more modest gains -- has never been effectively neck-and-neck with the SAT in this way. In fact, some of the detail released at the briefing Monday suggests that the ACT may have more test-takers -- or would have, had the College Board not changed the way it counted. The College Board said that it included 50,000 test-takers this year who took the exam in May or June of their senior year -- whereas in past years, the board stopped counting at the end of March. While the College Board counted these people in their totals for the exam, their scores were excluded from averages, in the interest of having comparable year-to-year comparisons, since these students likely were those who were deciding only late in the process that they wanted to consider college.

Laurence Bunin, the College Board's senior vice president for operations and the general manager of the SAT Program, said that the College Board has noticed a 44 percent increase since 2006 in test-taking this late in students' senior years -- and he said this was a good thing. "What this means is that students who in the past did not consider college are now thinking about and preparing for post-secondary education. This is positive news in the movement to increase college completion in America," he said.

Schaeffer suggested that this was really a way to hide the extent to which ACT now has a majority of the market. (A spokesman for the ACT said that the organization didn't know enough about how the College Board is counting to be able to determine if the organization has more test-takers now.)

In recent years, the ACT has expanded significantly outside of its Midwest base and it is accepted by every college in the United States that requires a standardized admission test. The College Board and the ACT produce a "concordance table" that matches scores on the two exams. But many guidance counselors report that some of their students -- those who take rigorous courses but who "don't test well" -- do better on the ACT than the SAT.

Kristen Campbell, executive director of college prep programs at Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, said that she read the numbers to mean that the ACT has more test-takers, but she warned that the numbers may be hard to interpret because many students are taking both exams -- and then deciding which scores to submit. She said that about 60 percent of Kaplan students report that they either have taken or are considering taking both the SAT and the ACT. As all colleges have moved to accept the ACT, she said, "there has been a shift that has translated into a choice for students, and students are taking both tests."


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