(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)


The newly released scores on the SAT college admissions test turned out to be the lowest since the exam was redesigned in 2005. My Post colleague Nick Anderson wrote in this story that the “test results show that gains in reading and math in elementary grades haven’t led to broad improvement in high schools.” So what does this all mean? Here’s a post looking at the issue, by Carol Burris, who retired this year as an award-winning principal at a New York high school. She is the author of numerous articles, books and blog posts (including on The Answer Sheet) about the botched school reform efforts in her state.


By Carol Burris

SAT scores for the Class of 2015 were the lowest since the test was revised and re-normed in 2005. The score drop in one year was 7 points — a drop that Inside Higher Ed characterized as significant.

The College Board began publishing SAT reports in 1972. This year’s reading score is the lowest average score ever published. Math scores have not been this low since 1999. And Inside Higher Ed describes the achievement gap as “large and growing.” All groups’ scores, with the exception of Asian students, are declining.

Across news reports, the reaction to the drop in scores was remarkably the same. Every story I saw included information provided by the College Board that subtly implied that the drop was due to the “largest number ever” of test takers, combined with an increase in the proportion of students who applied for fee waivers. The College Board also reported that the test takers are the “most diverse group ever.”

Let’s take a closer look at those claims.

It is true that 2015 saw the largest number of SAT test takers. By comparing the College Board’s 2014 College Bound Senior report with its 2015 report, it appears that 26,126 more seniors took the test. It should be noted that the College Board rounded its 2015 figure up by about 1479 students in the press report, while rounding down their 2014 figure by 2,395 students, thus making the increase seem larger than it is.

That 26,126 increase included an additional 4,532 seniors who described themselves as “citizens of another country.”   The SAT has become increasingly popular among international students who take it in order to attend college in the United States. Between 2006 and 2014, the number of international students taking the SAT has doubled. According to the International Business Times, more than 300,000 students in 175 nations took the SAT in 2014. And those students are hardly dragging down the scores—the average SAT composite score for all test takers in 2015 was 1490. The average score for “citizens of another country scores” was 1576.

More important than the total number of test takers, however, is whether or not the proportion of seniors who took the SAT has increased. In other words, is the increase in the raw number of test takers attributable to an increase in the total number of American seniors, plus an increase in international students? If this is the case, then we should not attribute “the score dive” to an increase in the number tested.

In their report, the College Board does not give the proportion of American seniors taking the test. They do however, give state by state proportions.

Between 2014 and 2015:

  • 11 states saw an increase in the proportion of seniors who took the SAT.
  • 3 states remained exactly the same.
  • 36 states saw decreases in the percentages of members of the Class of 2015 taking the test when compared with 2014.

 Further, fluctuations in state percentages were not always associated with proportional increases or decreases in scores. Florida was a state that had an increase in test takers — about 2 percent. Average scores dropped 14 points. California had the tiniest of increases — 0.1 percent. Yet average scores dropped 12 points. There are also states such as Pennsylvania that had score drops, even though the proportion of test takers went down.

What about the assumption that the increase in fee waiver students is responsible for the decline? It implies that a greater proportion of test takers come from low-income households. The increase in fee waivers does not necessarily mean, however, that the percentage of low-income test takers has increased. It could be attributed to more students being encouraged to apply for the waiver. In fact, the percentage of low-income students who are test-takers has been remarkably stable.

Here are the percentages of test takers with family incomes below $20,000 during the past five years: 2011 — 13 percent, 2012 — 14 percent, 2013 — 14 percent, 2014 — 13 percent, 2015 — 14 percent. That same stability runs across all bands of income.

And what of the College Board’s claim that this is “the most diverse group ever”? Time Magazine implied that the increase in fee waiver students and increases in diversity are the cause of the decline.

How much has diversity increased? Since 2011 the percentage of Black or African American students taking the test has been a steady 13 percent every year. There have been small proportional increases in 2 of the 3 categories that describe students who are Hispanic or Latino, but there are also small proportional increases in Asian students and international students whose test scores exceed the average by large amounts. Asian students’ average scores this year were a whooping 164 points above the total average. They are hardly dragging scores down.

And in this year of the big drop, the proportions of Black, Latino/Hispanic and Asian test takers are exactly the same as they were in 2014.

So let’s sum it up. Since 2011, average SAT scores have dropped by 10 points even though the proportion of test takers from the reported economic brackets has stayed the same and the modest uptick in the number of Latino students was partially offset by an increase in Asian American and international students.   And in the year of the biggest drop (7 points), the proportional share of minority students is the same as it was in 2014.

So what does the SAT have to say about how to improve scores? Nearly every article on the topic included the same quote from the chief of assessment of the College Board, Cyndie Schmeiser:

“Simply doing the same things we have been doing is not going to improve these numbers. This is a call to action to do something different to propel more students to readiness.”

Well, riddle me this one: Does Ms. Schmeiser talk to her boss? College Board chief David Coleman certainly created “something different” back in 2010.   And given that the Class of 2015 had five years of exposure to his Common Core State Standards (of which he was the co-author of the English Language Standards), as well as spending their entire school career in the era of NCLB accountability, it doesn’t look like “something different” is working very well.

Of course, his new solution is to make next year’s newly designed SATs align with the Common Core. Expect ACT registration, which is already on the rise, to increase.

Reformers like Coleman are now the status quo, and the evidence of the effectiveness of their strategies have yet to appear. And if the past four years of SATs are a measure, then their reforms are having a negative effect on scores.

Reflecting on the dropping SAT scores, corporate reform super-fan, Mike Petrilli, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute asked this question in The Washington Post, “Why is education reform hitting a wall in high school?”

This former 15-year high school principal can answer your question, Mr. Petrilli. Education reform isn’t hitting a wall. It is the wall.