Washington area SAT scores mostly improve while nationwide performance is flat

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; B05

SAT scores of college-bound high school seniors were flat nationwide this year, even as some students in the Washington region sharply improved their performance, according to data released Monday by the College Board and local school officials.

Montgomery County public school students posted record-high scores of 1653, and the school system took steps to narrow the persistent achievement gap between white and Asian American students and their black and Hispanic peers. D.C. students' composite scores on the exam were up almost 2 percent, to 1404, out of a maximum of 2400. In Fairfax County, the region's largest school system, scores were flat compared with last year, at 1664.

Nationwide, average composite scores were 1509, the same as last year and down from 2005. The number of high school seniors who took the test sometime during their high school careers was at a record high, at 1.5 million students. The group of test-takers also was the most diverse; 41.5 percent were minorities.

In Montgomery, average scores rose dramatically, especially for minority students. Composite scores for African American students were up 49 points from last year, to 1405, and those of Hispanic students were up 54 points, to 1452. White students' scores were up 15 points, to 1748. Fewer students took the SAT, something school officials attributed to the rising popularity of the ACT, a rival college admissions exam. In Montgomery, for example, 71.4 percent of graduating seniors took the SAT this year, down from 75.8 percent in 2006.

Statewide, Maryland's composite score rose to 1502 from 1497 last year. Virginia's average scores were flat, at 1521. Prince William County schools were up nine points, to 1508, Alexandria schools were up one point, to 1442 and Loudoun County schools were up four points, to 1597.

Howard County officials said they had not received the system's results. Charles County schools are asking the College Board to review their results, said spokeswoman Katie O'Malley-Simpson. D.C. public schools, Prince George's, Anne Arundel, Calvert and St. Mary's counties did not respond to requests for their data. The College Board releases data by state; its D.C. data include all District students who took the SAT, not just public school students.

Test officials said that as more students from underserved groups have started to take the exam, stable scores were in themselves a victory.

"As we see the diversity of the group increasing, we generally think it's good that the scores are staying stable," said Peter Kauffmann, a spokesman for the College Board, the New York-based organization that administers the SAT.

The SAT tests students in critical reading, math and writing, with each section worth 800 points. It is considered an indicator for college readiness.

Scores nationwide have held largely flat for decades. Reading scores are four points lower than they were in 2000 and one point higher than they were in 1990. Math scores are two points higher than they were in 2000 and 15 points higher than in 1990. But scores were up in the middle of the 2000s and have lost those gains.

A leading critic of the exams said that the results are a sign that the emphasis on high-stakes tests under the federal No Child Left Behind law has not worked.

"Policymakers need to embrace very different policies if they are committed to real education reform," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the nonprofit National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

College Board President Gaston Caperton said more work remains.

"I don't know that we would say that [No Child Left Behind] is a failure," Caperton said, "but it certainly hasn't accomplished what we must accomplish in this country."

College Board officials said that data showed that students who took more challenging tests, such as Advanced Placement exams -- which also are administered by the College Board -- did better on the SAT.

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