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Along with Increased Test-taking, SAT Sees Drop in Average Scores

The nation’s average SAT scores dropped significantly in 2011 from last year, according to results released Wednesday by the College Board, but experts offered different perspectives on the reasons why and the remedies, as well as whether the dip signifies something good or bad.

The total mean SAT scores in reading, math and writing this year were 497, 514 and 489, respectively, down from 500, 515 and 489, respectively, from the year before, according to the 2011 College-Bound  Seniors Total Group Profile Report released by the College Board.

If you ask Jim L. Miller, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, such decreases from year to year don’t really mean much unless it’s part of a multi-year trend. And even then, he said, it likely stems from the fact that more members of socio-economic groups that are underrepresented on the nation’s campuses are now taking the SAT.

“I would suspect that, as you have higher degrees of participation, your scores are going to moderate a little bit,” Miller said.

“The best prepared are already thinking in advance about going to college,” Miller continued. “The next people as you expand the pools are going to be people that have not had as much preparation.”

Miller said he was pleased to see that more students are taking the SAT “because it seems to me that there are more people thinking about degrees.”

Indeed, as in previous years, the College Board noted that the nearly 1.65 million students who took the SAT in 2011 represented the “largest and most diverse class in history.”

While the number of test takers has gradually grown—in 2006 there were 1.5 million test takers—and while the “most diverse” claim is technically true, a side-by-side comparison of the Total Group Profile reports from 2010 and 2011 shows that the general ethnic makeup of SAT-takers is pretty much the same, although the overall number of test-takers has in fact risen.

For instance, there was no change in the percentage of test-takers who were Black or African-American (13 percent); Asian, Asian American or Pacific Islander (11 percent); Mexican or Mexican American (6 percent); Puerto Rican (2 percent); or American Indian or Alaska Native (1 percent), from 2010 to 2011.

The only groups that experienced percentage changes were Other Hispanic, Latino or Latin American students (up to 8 percent this year from 7 percent last year) and White students (down to 53 percent this year from 54 percent last year).

At the same time, the numbers of all groups went up significantly, but the gaps between underrepresented groups and White students didn’t really close and in fact became a little wider in some cases.

For instance, the reading, math and writing scores for Black or African-American students went from 429, 428 and 420, respectively, in 2010, to 428, 427 and 417, respectively, in 2011.

Similarly, among Other Hispanic, Latino or Latin American students, the scores went from 454 and 447 in reading and writing, respectively, in 2010, to 451 and 444, respectively, in 2011. The math score of 462 stayed the same for this group.

Meanwhile, the reading and writing scores of White students stayed the same from 2010 to 2011, at 528 and 516, respectively, but went down in math from 536 to 535.

For Robert Schaeffer, Public Education Director of FairTest, the gradually growing gap in scores between underrepresented students and White students signifies a failure in the nation’s education policy, particularly No Child Left Behind.

“When you have not just SAT scores, but ACT, NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores, saying all the same thing, that shows that educational quality overall is stagnant or declining, and racial gaps are increasing,” Schaeffer said. “We’re not making progress; we’re moving backward.”

Schaeffer said the long-term declines that Miller says are necessary to be significant are in fact present. In a news release, FairTest noted that overall scores in reading, math and writing have declined by 6, 4 and 8 points, respectively, since 2006.

“The remedy is to stop the fixation on simple-minded tests that No Child Left Behind (calls for), give all kids a rich education, with an emphasis on higher-order thinking skills, and that will improve the overall quality and equality,” Schaeffer said.

Miller, of NACAC, said he believes such efforts are being made.

“I think there’s some work going on to try and diminish the gap,” MIller said. “We need to focus on a few key things: rigorous curriculum in schools and creating a college-going culture, and offering support in schools in the area of counseling to help show them the way (to college) and how to afford it.

“If we can get those things in place, we can increase the number of underrepresented students thinking about college, going and being successful. That’s what I’m optimistic about.”

Miller said these school improvement efforts are more important than the SAT results because such reforms will lead to better SAT scores.

“If we focus on making sure students are taking rigorous curriculum and thinking about college, the test scores will go up over time,” Miller said.

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