Flat SAT Scores

For both SAT and Advanced Placement tests, gaps remain significant among racial and socioeconomic groups.

October 7, 2014

SAT results for the Class of 2014 show mixed – and very slight – changes from last year.

The average score in critical reading increased one point, while average scores in math and writing fell by one point. Scores have been either flat or slowly declining for the past several years, dropping 11 points in reading and seven points in math in the past decade. (The writing exam wasn’t introduced until nine years ago, in 2006, but scores have fallen in that category, too.)

Meanwhile, gaps in the performance of students from different socioeconomic and ethnic groups show no signs of closing.

This is the first year the College Board has released results for the PSAT, SAT and Advanced Placement Program tests in the same report. Results from AP courses show an increase in the number of students taking and passing exams, but similar achievement gaps for minority groups.

Just 42.6 percent of the 1.6 million students who took the SAT met the College Board's College and Career Readiness Benchmark, which is a combined score of 1,550. That score means there’s a 65 percent likelihood that a student will have a first-year GPA of B- or higher at a four-year college.

But when broken down by ethnicity, the SAT readiness rate varies widely, from 15.8 percent of black students to 60.9 percent of Asian-American students. Those rates have barely budged in the past five years.

As expected, the data show increases in scores that correspond with increased parental education and income. Scores climb in all three academic subjects at each income or education level step.

Test-takers whose parents don’t have a high school diploma had an average combined SAT score of 1,286, while children of parents with graduate degrees scored an average 1,686.

Students whose families earn up to $20,000 a year, the lowest income bracket, had an average score of 1,324, compared with an average score of 1,722 for those whose families earn more than $200,000 a year, the highest income bracket.

But that’s one of the major problems with the SAT, said Bob Schaeffer, public education director at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a vocal critic of the exam. The test measures a student’s background and access to resources -- including expensive test prep -- more than it predicts a student’s likelihood of success at the college level, he said.

Schaeffer hadn’t seen the average scores for the class of 2014 and the related demographic information, since it wasn’t released publicly until today. But he said the College Board’s report on the data wasn’t informative. It highlighted the growth in the number of students participating in the SAT, PSAT and AP exams and noted some achievement gaps.

The report also focused on what it called “missed opportunities” for students. For example, almost 4 out of 10 students with the potential to succeed in AP courses, based on their PSAT scores, did not take an AP course.  

And of the students who took the PSAT in their junior year and SAT in their senior year, 29,000, or 5 percent, were on target to meet the college readiness benchmark during their junior year but fell off-target by the time they took the SAT their senior year.

Schaeffer said much of the College Board's report was more of an advertisement and a distraction from the real issues. For one, schools don't need PSAT scores to identify students who aren't being challenged or who are underserved, whether it's by AP courses or some other equivalent college-level course. In many cases, the reason those students aren't taking AP courses is that schools don't have the resources to train AP teachers or reduce class sizes enough to offer college-level courses, Schaeffer said.

Instead, attention should be on the country's focus on high-stakes testing, particularly in the years following the federal No Child Left Behind law, and how that law hasn't lived up to its promise of improved academic achievement and smaller gaps between demographic and socioeconomic groups, he said. Neither has happened since No Child Left Behind took effect in 2002.

David Coleman, president and CEO of College Board, said in a news release that the assessment company has been reporting for a long time that students weren’t prepared for college and careers, and now the College Board is working to change that. The company will start offering a revised version of the SAT in 2016.

“Offering the same old test in the face of lasting problems is just not good enough,” Coleman said.

The number of students who took the SAT is up slightly this year, from 1,660,047 to 1,672,395 students. The gap between the number of students taking the ACT and the SAT continued to grow, however.

The ACT first surpassed the SAT in 2012. After a record 1.84 million students took the ACT this year, the ACT topped the SAT by 173,392 test-takers. The ACT scores were released in August, showing a similar case of little change and a large portion of test-takers not meeting benchmarks.

Advanced Placement Tests

As in previous years, the number of students taking AP exams climbed in 2014 to 1.4 million students, an increase of 3.8 percent over 2013. That means that more than one-fifth of all junior and seniors in public schools took an AP exam in May.

There was also considerable growth (about 7 percent) in both the number of minority and low-income students taking the exam, and nearly a quarter of test-takers used a fee waiver to take the exam in 2014, up from 11 percent in 2004.

A bright spot the College Board highlighted was that the percentage of Hispanic students taking the test (19.1 percent) is nearly equal to the percentage of the general population (21.9 percent). But only 12.9 percent of African-American and 12 percent of Native American students in 11th or 12th grade took an exam.

The success of test-takers also varies between subgroups of students and states. Thirteen percent of all junior and seniors in public schools passed an AP exam in May, meaning they scored at least a 3 on a scale from 1 to 5.

Of the students taking an AP exam, 56.1 percent were white, yet white students represented 61.8 percent of the students who earned a passing score. That trend is similar for Asian students, who represent a greater portion of the successful group than they do of test-takers over all.

The opposite is true of black and Hispanic students. For example, black students represented 8.6 percent of test-takers and only 4.3 percent of those scoring higher than 3.

Maryland students performed the best by state, with 22 percent of students earning a 3 or above on an AP exam. On the other end of the spectrum is Mississippi, where 3.2 percent of juniors and seniors passed an AP exam.


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