“Once you hit a certain mark, you want to maintain that,” said Frieda Lacey, deputy superintendent for Montgomery schools. “Don’t think the decline didn’t bother us. It really did.”
Nationally, the reading score for the Class of 2011, including public- and private-school students, was 497, down three points from the previous year and 33 points from 1972, the earliest year for which comparisons are possible. The average math score was 514, down one point from last year but up five from 1972.
The College Board attributed the lower scores to the growing diversity of test-takers, many of whom are less prepared for college-level work or are learning English as a second language.
“The good news is we have more students thinking about college than ever before,” said James Montoya, a College Board vice president. “Anytime you expand the number of students taking the SAT and expand it the way that we have — into communities that have not necessarily been part of the college-going culture — it’s not surprising to see a decline of a few points.”
The disappointing SAT scores come as schools have made major efforts to raise scores on state standardized tests under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law. Some critics of testing say the intense focus on state reading and math exams has taken its toll on higher-order thinking skills.
“We have score inflation on state tests, because that’s what teachers are drilling, and lower performance elsewhere,” said Bob Schaeffer, spokesman for an advocacy group called FairTest.
Locally, average SAT scores were down significantly from 2010 scores reported last year. In Fairfax County, it dropped 10 points, to 1654. In Prince William, it dropped 18 points, to 1490, and in Montgomery, it dropped 16 points, to 1637. The composite score for D.C. public schools dropped seven points, to 1220.
The maximum score is 800 for each subject, including a writing section, and 2400 overall.
Colleges have used the SAT to gauge applicants since 8,040 students took the first exam in 1926. Since then, the voluntary test has been taken by a less and less elite group and has become a closely watched measure of school system performance. However, many factors outside the classroom, including family income and education levels, can influence the results. Schools in poor neighborhoods tend to have lower scores.
For the first time, the College Board said, more than half of all high school graduates — or 1.65 million students — took the exam. That was up from 47 percent in 2010. Test-takers were also more diverse than ever: Forty-four percent were minorities; 36 percent were the first in their family to go to college; and 27 percent did not speak English exclusively.