SAT Records Biggest Score Dip in 31 Years

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The first national results from the revamped SAT show the biggest annual drop in reading scores in 31 years and a significant edge for female students over males on the new writing section of the test, the College Board reported yesterday.

The report on SAT scores for the high school Class of 2006 illuminated how the introduction of the writing section -- including a much-dreaded essay question -- and revisions to the mathematics and reading sections have changed an assessment tool still used for admissions by most colleges and universities.

The College Board said the average score on the test's critical reading section was down five points and the average math section score was down two points, for a joint score of 1021, the lowest since 2002. The reading decline was the largest since a nine-point drop in 1975 on what was then known as the verbal section.

Average scores for public and private school students in Maryland, Virginia and the District also declined. Maryland had the largest drop, eight points in reading and six in math. As a possible factor, state officials cited a large jump in test participation among Baltimore students who had not completed a rigorous high school curriculum. Officials noted that SAT scores are nearly always higher in more affluent areas, and that participation rates can affect scores.

On the new writing section, the average score nationwide was 497, for a new total average of 1518 out of a possible 2400 points. That benchmark will help students, guidance counselors and college admissions officers nationwide gauge results for a test that previously had a perfect score of 1600 -- 800 for verbal and 800 for math.

The average writing score for females was 502, 11 points ahead of males, at 491. Female students generally do worse on math tests but better on writing tests, and the new section helped reduce the usual male lead on the overall average SAT score from 42 points to 26.

College Board officials blamed the national drop in scores on a parallel decline in the number of students taking the test more than once. Repeat test-taking, they said, can boost scores as much as 30 points combined for reading and math.

Officials also said they were concerned that students are taking fewer composition and grammar courses. They noted that reading scores have stagnated during the past 30 years.

But they rejected the view of many students, counselors and test-prep teachers that lower scores were the result of fatigue from the longer test. At 3 hours and 45 minutes, the SAT can last more than four hours with breaks.

"I am not suggesting that students aren't tired after the test," Wayne Camara, College Board vice president for research and analysis, said at a news conference in Washington, "but our data show conclusively that student performance does not trail off at the end of the test."

Anita Kinney, a Catholic University freshman who was one of nearly 1.5 million high school seniors who took the new SAT, said it was ridiculous to discount exhaustion. "The test is four hours long. Enough said," she said. "The members of the College Board obviously have not sat down and taken the new SAT."

David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said many counselors are lobbying for more breaks in the test, or for administering the SAT in smaller chunks over two days. The College Board, a nonprofit based in New York that sponsors the SAT and other tests, said it is studying those requests.

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