Scores on New SAT Expected to Decline

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 11, 2006

College Board officials say they are expecting as much as a five-point average decline in math and verbal scores on the new SAT, leading many high school counselors to conclude that the longer test is wearing out test takers and hurting their performance.

At least 15 colleges and universities have reported even greater drops in the average scores on the nation's leading college entrance exam among applicants for this fall's freshman class. On the nine campuses of the University of California, the largest user of the SAT, average scores declined by 15 points, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported a 12-point drop. Final national figures are not expected until August.

In the Washington area, applicants' scores dropped by seven points at Georgetown University, by 10 points at George Washington University and by 15 to 20 points at Howard University. Linda Sanders-Hawkins, interim director for admissions at Howard, said College Board officials had indicated to her that the declines will be particularly severe for African American test takers.

Last year, for the first time, students had to write an essay in addition to answering multiple-choice questions in the verbal (or what the College Board calls "critical reading") and math sections. The new exam is 3 hours 35 minutes long, compared with the previous three-hour test.

The decline in scores, which was reported by USA Today, occurred in the math and verbal sections; there was no writing section in the previous year's SAT with which to compare. College admissions officers and testing experts offered several other explanations, such as fewer retests, more difficult material on the verbal and math sections, and more anxiety about the new exam.

"It was so much longer, and the kids were so hyped about it because this test had never been given before," said Kathryn M. Napper, who observed the phenomenon both as director of admissions at George Washington University and as the mother of a high school senior.

Several high school guidance counselors have asked the College Board to consider changes, such as more and longer breaks, that would keep students from becoming too tired. The New York-based nonprofit organization has said it is considering several options.

"I think the test is entirely too long and that fatigue is definitely affecting student performance," said Robyn Lady, a college counselor at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County.

James Montoya, vice president for higher-education assessments for the College Board, sent a message to college admissions directors April 21 after eight colleges had reported large and unexpected drops in average scores. He emphasized that fewer students are retaking the test, which counselors attribute to a price increase from $28.50 to $41.50.

"At this point," Montoya said, "we believe that this decrease in repeat test taking may account for some of the average score decline. The average student who retests increases his or her combined critical reading and math scores by approximately 30 points."

Colleges said the ACT, the other much-used entrance exam, did not appear to show unusual declines in average scores. The SAT drop, said David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, "sends a message to college admissions offices nationwide that admission test scores should be handled with great care."

Average SAT scores changed suddenly in other years, including a 16-point decrease in 1975 and jumps of seven points in 1995 and six points in 2003.

Robert J. Massa, vice president for enrollment at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., said the school's applicants' average scores dropped six points but the accepted students' average jumped eight points. He said he will have to see more data before deciding if the SAT needed adjustment.

"When large public universities post score declines," he said, "I am not terribly surprised because price is driving more and more families to the public institutions," and the larger the applicant pool, the more likely it is to draw students with lower scores.

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