County's SAT Scores Fall Again as Racial Gap Grows

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008

The latest SAT report from Montgomery County brims with bad news. Scores are down. The achievement gap that separates whites and Asians from blacks and Hispanics is growing.

A smaller share of high school students is taking the test. The county's competitive position against the likes of Howard and Fairfax counties is slipping.

If there's any consolation in the latest scores, it may be that students are defecting to the rival ACT in such numbers as to suggest the SAT matters somewhat less to Montgomery seniors and their parents than it did a few years ago. For many parents, however, the SAT average remains the ultimate measure of a high school.

The county's composite test score for the Class of 2008 was 1616 out of a possible 2400 points on the three-section test. The score is down eight points from last year and 18 points from 2006, the year a third section, writing, was added to the venerable math-reading exam.

Superintendent Jerry D. Weast attributed the decline to the county's growing economic diversity. The number of students taking the test who qualified for federal meal subsidies, an index of poverty, has increased by almost half since 2006. Those students, as a group, dragged down the county average. There is a well-established link between family income and average SAT score, which owes partly to the ability of affluent families to pay for tutors and multiple test-taking sessions.

Until "all students have the same level of preparation going into the exam, scores may decline," Weast wrote in an Aug. 26 memo to school board members. "That is what we experienced this year."

Scores have fallen dramatically at some schools. Composite scores at Blake, Paint Branch and Springbrook high schools have declined at least 50 points since 2006, all slipping below the national average. Scores are comparatively static at the most economically privileged high schools: Neither Churchill, Walter Johnson, Whitman nor Wootton posted a decline of more than 12 points in average SAT score since 2006, although the score at only one of the four, Walter Johnson, increased. Whitman and Churchill consistently rank among the top schools in the nation for average SAT scores.

Montgomery continues to score above Maryland (1498) and the nation (1511) on the leading college entrance exam, administered by the College Board. But county scores have been on a four-year slide. In that span, Montgomery's mean score on the traditional reading and math sections of the test has slipped 22 points, from 1103 to 1081.

SAT scores have declined across the nation since the third section was introduced, spawning several possible explanations. Students might be growing fatigued over the course of a test that is longer than it used to be. They might also be less likely to take the test a second or third time; the share of students who took the SAT two or more times in Montgomery declined from 66 percent in 2006 to 60 percent this year. Scores tend to rise in retesting.

Weast offered school board members yet another theory: Students may be "cherry-picking," or assembling an optimal composite score from two or more exams. A student might take the test once, do poorly in math, then take it a second time and focus on raising the math score, to the detriment of the other sections. That allows the student to cobble together a higher composite score, while the neglected test sections pull down the schoolwide average.

Such factors do not, of course, explain why the county has lost competitive footing to neighboring counties on the SAT. Montgomery's composite score this year falls 38 points shy of the Fairfax average (1654) and 25 points below Howard (1641). Just four years ago, Montgomery's composite score was higher than Howard's and trailed Fairfax by just three points. In that span, the pool of low-income students taking the exam in Montgomery has grown significantly. Fairfax and Howard counties have considerably less poverty.

Whites and Asians in Montgomery continue to outscore their counterparts in Fairfax, and scores are rising for both groups in Montgomery. But scores are declining for Hispanics and especially for blacks, whose composite SAT average has fallen 24 points in two years.

As a result, the SAT achievement gap is growing. On the core reading and math sections of the test, the disparity between white and black average scores has widened from 243 points in 2001 to 274 points this year. That makes the SAT a notable failure for Montgomery school officials in addressing the achievement gap, which has narrowed in several other areas, such as Maryland School Assessment testing and Advanced Placement participation.

Test participation is down, as well: 74 percent of Montgomery students in the Class of 2008 took the test, compared with 76 percent in 2006. Weast told school board members the dip may signal a shift in loyalty to the rival ACT: 7,274 students in the graduating class took the SAT, and 2,355 took the ACT, a four-section test that covers English, mathematics, reading and science. The rise in ACT participation, 620 students this year, more than offsets the 386-student decline in SAT testing.

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