The nation’s high school class of 2006, the first to take a new, longer version of the SAT, posted the sharpest drop in scores on the widely used college entrance exam in more than three decades, test officials said Tuesday.
Leaders of the College Board, the New York nonprofit that owns the test, said the decrease was partly due to some students choosing to take the high-stakes exam just once instead of twice or more. It also said fatigue was not a factor, although many students have complained about the length of the test, which now lasts 3 hours and 45 minutes, without breaks.
Critics said the size of the decline -- seven points on average for the combined math and critical reading sections -- raises new questions about the SAT less than a year after controversy erupted over the disclosure of scoring errors on the 2005 exam.
Students planning to enter college this fall averaged 503, down five points, in critical reading, and 518, down two points, in math. The combined average score of 1,021 on the two sections was the biggest year-to-year decline since 1975.
On the new writing section, which included a hand-written essay, students averaged 497, with females scoring 11 points higher than males. That result, the first time in 35 years that females outscored males on a section of the SAT, helped narrow the test’s long-running gender gap from 42 points in 2005 to 26 points this year, officials said.
In California, more than 190,000 college-bound seniors took the exam, an increase of about 3% from 2005. They beat the national average on the writing section with an average score of 501.
But the state’s scores in critical reading and math slipped below last year’s. In reading, students posted an average score of 501, down three points from 2005 and two points below the national average.
Their 518 in math was down four points from last year and matched that of students nationwide. The College Board posts national and state-by-state scores on its website, www.collegeboard.com.
Jack O’Connell, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, applauded California students’ performance on the new writing section, while noting the dip in other scores.
O’Connell also praised other data showing that more African American, Latino and other underrepresented minority students in California had taken the SAT in 2006 than ever, and that more of the state’s students were taking tougher levels of math and English courses.
College Board officials, who had signaled in recent months that scores would be lower this year, downplayed the seven-point decline. They said the drop in math scores amounted to one-fifth of one test question, and the decline in reading to one-half of one question.
“That’s almost insignificant,” College Board President Gaston Caperton said at a Washington news conference. “So am I concerned about it? No.”
He and other board officials attributed the drop partly to the fact that about 3% fewer test takers this year -- out of 1.5 million -- decided to take the exam over. Combined reading and math scores typically jump 30 points when a student retakes the test.
Because the test was new, students in the class of 2006 were able to choose between the older and newer versions. Many who took the older SAT, without the essay, may have opted not to retake it, said Wayne Camara, the College Board’s vice president for research. Other students, who waited to face the test until later in their high school careers, may have had fewer chances to retake it, he said.
The officials said fatigue was not to blame. Camara said an analysis of 700,000 exams taken in 2005 showed that student performance did not suffer as the test went on, despite the increased length -- up 45 minutes from the previous 3 hours.
Still, the results spurred fresh criticism of the College Board, with some experts saying the point declines, along with the 2005 scoring errors, should raise questions about whether the new SAT is comparable to the old. About 5,000 students who took the test in October were found to have received incorrect scores, a problem the College Board blamed largely on answer sheets affected by humidity.
The latest results “should be a wake-up call to policymakers to rethink their idea that the SAT can be the accurate gauge they think it is,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which opposes most standardized testing.
Christine Parker, executive director of high school course content at the Princeton Review, a test prep company, said she was surprised to see the College Board minimizing the score declines, noting that it has previously hailed minor increases.
“They’re a bit on the defensive,” Parker said. Perhaps fewer students retook the SAT in 2006, she suggested, because more took the ACT, a rival exam, in which an essay is optional.
The number of SAT test takers this year dipped to about 1.47 million, whereas the number of ACT takers, about 1.2 million, was slightly higher.
Parker called the performance of female students on the new writing section “good news,” given that the gender disparity, along with long-running racial score gaps, has been one of the major criticisms of the SAT. She said the addition of the essay, along with an expanded reading comprehension section, helped young women, as the math section historically has favored their male counterparts.
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High school graduates of 2006 were the first to take the revised version of the SAT, which now includes a writing section. Scores fell nationwide for both math and critical reading.
*--* Critical Reading* Math Writing** 2005 2006 2005 2006 2006 All 508 503 520 518 497 Male 513 505 538 536 491 Female 505 502 504 502 502
*--* Critical reading* Math Writing** 2005 2006 2005 2006 2006 All 504 501 522 518 501 Male 510 505 543 541 497 Female 499 497 504 500 504
*Formerly known as Verbal** New this year
Source: College Board