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SAT Takers Grow More Diverse, Scores Stagnate

More students from diverse backgrounds are taking the SAT, a College Board report released Monday shows, but critics warn that their performance on the college entrance exam raises concerns about the current national policy and quality of K-12 education.

Among SAT takers in the high school class of 2010, the report states, 41.5 percent were minority students, a 3.75 percent jump over the 40 percent who took the test the previous year and a dramatic rise over the 28.6 percent who took the college entrance exam in 2000. The College Board reported  that more college-bound students in the class of 2010, nearly 1.6 million students, took the SAT than in any other high school graduating class in history.

However, mean scores generally held steady but also approached historic lows in some measures.

“That’s a good thing that more kids, particularly those from historically disenfranchised groups, are thinking about going to college,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, an organization that advocates for fairness in standardized assessments.

“But it doesn’t help if they’re less well prepared,” Schaeffer said of the fact that the SAT scores of low-income and minority students generally lagged behind those of Whites.

Schaeffer blames the lagging scores among minority groups on an inferior K-12 education they receive under No Child Left Behind.

Asked whether he blamed the law itself or other factors, Schaeffer said: “We’re saying that No Child Left Behind promised to narrow the racial test score gap and improve overall achievement. That’s not what happened by any measure.”

According to the newly released College Board report—titled 2010 College-Bound Seniors: Total Group Profile Report—SAT scores pretty much held steady from the previous year. However, on a more detailed level, reading scores are near an all-time low at 501, and math scores are near an all-time high at 516, while writing scores are at an all-time low at 492 for the five years since the writing component was added to the SAT. SAT takers in the high school class of 2009 had mean scores of 501 in reading, 515 in math, and 493 in writing.

Lisa Sohmer, a former board member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and director of College Counseling at Garden School in Jackson Heights, N.Y., said the downward trend in SAT test scores partially reflects the fact that more students from socioeconomically challenged backgrounds are taking the SAT.

Indeed, SAT scores generally rise with two things: the income and education levels of their parents—a fact borne out in the 2010 College Board profile report.

For instance, the average reading, math and writing scores for students from families that earned $40,000 to $60,000 were 490, 500, and 478, respectively, out of a possible 800, whereas just one income bracket lower, in the $20,000 to $40,000 range, the scores were 464, 475, and 453, respectively.

Similar patterns emerged in the area of parental education. For instance, children of high school graduates scored 464, 475, and 453, respectively, on reading, math, and writing portions of the SAT, whereas children of parents who had earned a bachelor’s degree scored 521, 536, and 512 on the same parts of the test, respectively.

“If you look back into the earlier days of the SAT, there was a certain amount of self-selection among students and also schools deciding who should take the SAT or not,” Sohmer said. “When you make the population broader, I don’t think it’s surprising to see something of a decline in overall numbers,” she said, referring to SAT scores.

“The college application landscape is very different than it was in 1972,” Sohmer said. “Generally speaking, that’s a good thing.”

However, some unsettling statistics continue to haunt minority students, although, to the extent that family income and parental education levels are predictors of success on the SAT, that is largely because family income and parental education levels are generally lower in these groups.

The bottom line is that the achievement gap at the K-12 level is largely reflected in SAT scores. More specifically, based on the profile report, the scores of Black, Latino and Native American students trailed significantly behind the scores of Whites.

White students, for instance, scored an average of 530, 555, and 508 on reading, math, and writing portions of the SAT, whereas Black students scored 426, 436, and 408; Mexican or Mexican American students scored 451, 451, and 451; Hispanic, Other Hispanic, Latino or Latin American students scored 449, 446, and 449; and American Indian or Alaska Natives scored 484, 479, and 474, respectively.

Schaeffer, of FairTest, blamed a variety of factors, including a “fixation” on preparing students from low-performing schools to perform well on standardized tests that takes time and energy away from doing other things that make for a quality education.

“Instead of reading books, writing essays, doing science projects, thinking and learning,” Schaeffer said, “they’re doing test practice because those are the schools that are threatened with punishment under No Child Left Behind and feel that they have to boost their scores anyway they can.”          

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