The Midwest is really good at the SATs

September 26, 2013
Don't fall asleep at graduation, like this Boston College student (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Don’t fall asleep at graduation, like this Boston College student (Stephan Savoia/AP)

Students in the Midwest scored higher overall on their SATs than students along the Eastern Seaboard, according to data released this week by the company that administers the college entrance exams. But high school seniors in high-scoring states shouldn’t use the numbers for anything other than bragging rights.

The mean score on the SAT among seniors in Illinois was the tops in the nation, at 1807, according to the College Board, while North Dakota students notched a mean 1799 score. Students in Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota all scored means of 1760 or higher.

Mean SAT score by state:

(A helpful reminder for those of us who took the SAT more than a few years ago: The College Board recently added a writing section that increased the maximum possible score from 1600 to 2400).

North Dakota students scored highest on the test’s reading section, while Illinois students did best on the math questions and the writing section.

But here’s why we can’t draw grand, sweeping conclusions from the data: Only a small handful of high school students in the top-scoring states actually took the test. Just 2.4 percent of North Dakota students spent a Saturday filling in bubbles, along with 4.6 percent of their colleagues from Illinois. Instead, most students choose to take the ACT, the SAT’s competitor; 100 percent of high school seniors in Illinois and North Dakota’s class of 2012 took the ACT.

That means that those who voluntarily take the SAT in low-participation states self-select and are predisposed to earn a higher score.

“The SAT is a strong indicator of trends in the college-bound population, but it should never be used as the sole criterion for comparisons, because academic intensity and non-school factors such as demographics can vary widely across states,” Leslie Sepuka, a spokeswoman for the College Board, said in an e-mail.

Here’s the chart of states with high SAT participation:

And here’s where students choose the ACT, according to 2012 data:

Last year’s ACT results underscore Sepuka’s point: The 2012 scores were highest in states where fewer students took the test. Here are those results:

Minority students are becoming more likely to take the SAT, the College Board reported Wednesday, while the percentage of African American and Hispanic SAT takers who met or exceeded a score of 1550 — the score the College Board says leads to a high likelihood of a first-year average grade of a B- or better — rose slightly from 2012. Those who score a 1550 on their SATs are about twice as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within four years as those who didn’t reach that score, the College Board found.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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