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.
For the first time in about six years, fewer seniors took the SAT than the year before, a decline of about 9,800 test-takers. The drop, though small, led many counselors to suggest that the SAT is losing ground to the rival ACT. The Iowa City-based ACT, dominant in the Midwest, added about 20,000 test-takers to pass the 1.2 million mark with the Class of 2006. It has an optional writing section and is shorter than the SAT.
Camara attributed the SAT score decline in part to a decrease in the number of repeat test-takers. About 44 percent of the Class of 2005 took the SAT just once; about 47 percent did so in the Class of 2006.
"When a new test is introduced, students usually vary their test-taking behavior in a variety of ways, and this affects scores," said College Board president Gaston Caperton.
Kathryn M. Napper, admissions director for George Washington University, said many students saw less reason to impress colleges with their scores on the new test and were less likely to try again.
"Many seniors last year were being told that they were in the driver's seat with regards to the SAT -- that colleges would be more flexible in interpreting SAT results," she said.
Some counselors said a 46 percent increase in the SAT fee, to $41.50, might also have discouraged repeat business.
But other educators accepted the College Board's view that the drops in scores and in test-takers were the result of students adjusting to a new challenge.
"Anytime anybody sees something new -- a driving route, a TV remote, a football playbook -- it takes time to become familiar with it," said David J. Hamilton, director of college advising at St. Mary's Ryken High School in Leonardtown .
Doubts about the new test led many in the Class of 2006 to take the SAT before the new test was launched. Other students delayed taking the new test to see how their classmates handled it. Either strategy might have reduced the number of times the average student took the test.
The new math section had second-year algebra questions not included in previous versions, another possible factor in lower scores. The new critical reading section required more analysis of long reading passages and eliminated analogy questions that many critics said were not useful.
"It could be that this class reads less," said Robyn Lady, a counselor at McLean High School. "With each passing year, kids are more savvy with technology and engaging in multimedia learning but perhaps not reading as much as the classes before them."
Most local school systems reported score declines, although the more affluent suburbs still had very high scores. Fairfax County scores dropped a combined six points in reading and math. The county's overall average was 1643, and Fairfax officials said black and Asian American students posted gains.
Montgomery County's average was 1634. The county's scores fell two points in reading and two in math. But the system resisted year-to-year comparisons. "We're establishing this year as a new baseline because of the new SAT," said Montgomery schools spokesman Brian Edwards.
Prince George's County's combined reading and math scores fell 15 points. Officials said the county's black students were on par with other black students in the state and country, and the county's white minority equaled or bettered the average scores of white students elsewhere.
In Arlington County, reading was up three points and math up one point. D.C. public school students gained two points in reading and were unchanged in math. In Prince William County, combined math and reading scores were virtually flat. Loudoun County's scores dropped for the first time after five straight years of increases, with a nine-point decline in reading and an 11-point drop in math. Alexandria bucked the regional trend with reading scores up 30 points and math scores up 28 points.
Howard County reported gains for Hispanic students and slight declines for most others. Charles County reported sharp score drops. Anne Arundel County said it would release scores today.
Staff writers Lori Aratani, Tara Bahrampour, Michael Alison Chandler, Daniel de Vise, Maria Glod, V. Dion Haynes, Ian Shapira and William Wan contributed to this report.