Why are SAT scores declining? Should the SAT count so much?

The Education Blog on 10 has a post about the dropping SAT scores.

The College Board, which runs the SAT, has sent a letter to college administrators saying that they are seeing a decline of 4-5 points across the Critical Reading and Math sections as compared to last year’s scores.

This is in response to inquiries from puzzled administrators, who have seen an even larger drop. They are further mystified because they have seen a rise in many other statistics correlated with the quality of the applicant pool, and which in the past have correlated with SAT scores (as reported by Inside Higher Ed).

As Kevin points out, though, many of us in the field, myself included, are seeing a more significant drop.

I work with a rigorous SAT prep program that typically helps our kids gain well over 100 points. We do work before and the Monday after the test, I always debrief.

Here is what I have observed:

1) The math section is significantly harder

Curriculum will affect your scores more than ever.
The College Board says:


  • Math content expanded to include topics from third-year college preparatory math
  • Quantitative comparisons eliminated

Previously, our Math AP-track students could feasibly max out on the test at the end of the sophomore year. Now, the advanced track students should know most of the material by the end of their junior year. Our non-AP track students will not have everything covered until the end of our senior year, not in enough time to do very well on their SAT’s which need to be completed by November of their senior year.

Bottom line is that the test doesn’t really test reasoning anymore, with these changes in the math, the math score is MORE strongly reflective of curriculum and advanced placement.

The method of stating questions is somewhat misleading:

One of my tenth graders came to me with this question — How do you solve f(x) problems? Here was an example of the equation.

f(x) = x + y What is x?

Well, if it had been stated y=x +y, most of my ninth graders would know that x =0. However, this simple slip into functions tripped them all up. This doesn’t test reasoning, but again, curriculum.

2) Changes in the critical reading section.

Paired passages
Previously, I have found that the SAT only had one or two of the infamous paired passages and I prepped my students as such. Several of them reported on this SAT 3-4 sets of paired passages with one stand alone passage!

They used to go in order where a student could read one passage and answer questions concerning passage one, then read the second and answer questions concerning passage two. Then, draw conclusions and compare. (The way most of us read articles to compare them.)

Now, the passages are paired and they have jumbled up the questions. Additionally instead of 2-3 questions comparing both passages, many of my students reported having more than 3/4 of the questions comparing the passages.

So rather than answering fundamental inference, main idea, and vocabulary in context question, every question turns into a double question — about conclusions drawn on each passage. If we’re not going to teach students to compare passages in their minutia, I think testing in this manner is a bit extreme. Yes, some comparisons are fine and necessary, however, in college you don’t read books side by side but one at a time before comparing them.

Removal of analogies
Many post graduate tests use analogies to reflect reasoning abilities, however, the SAT has removed analogies. This, of course, made the test harder but I think is a disservice.

3) I think Testing Conditions are unreasonable

The Monday after the test in January, I blogged about how I believe the testing conditions are unreasonable.

Let them eat…something!
In every location my students took the test, they were not allowed to eat. They arrived at 7:30 a.m. and did not finish until after 1:30. The official snack policy of the SAT (now posted on their website) is:

Snack Policy

Although for security reasons, neither food nor drinks can be opened or consumed in the test room, students are encouraged to bring snacks in a book bag on test day. These snacks are easily stowed under desks or chairs in the test room and can be consumed outside of the test room during breaks.

Here is the problem, proctors are not letting the students have a break unsupervised and require them to stay in the room for fear that they will discuss the test.

My students were not allowed to eat! I think this made me angrier than most anything that happened to them on that day. For those who at at 6:30 in the morning that is 7 hours without eating.

Pre-test innefficiency
The test is too long, however, much time is wasted in non testing issues. Most students didn’t start actually taking the test until 9:15. That is one hour and forty five minutes of prime testing time spent bubbling in demographic data and other information that the SAT has already collected.
Consistently administer the test
If it is going to be a benchmark, the same bench must be used to make the mark! Some proctors notify time remaining, some do not. There are other differences I blogged about in January.

Who’s steering the boat?
Should we change our 9th grade curriculum to teach students f(x)? Do we alter things so they will do well on the SAT or so they make sense. Who put the SAT in charge of curriculum anyway?

I’m not sure that I agree at all with why the SAT selected the items that they did. There selections, however, are causing many schools like ours to analyze our misalignments and “plug holes” to teach things that “they” deem are important.

There is something distinctly wrong with this picture.

In Conclusion
I am finding more and more students dramatically opposed to taking the SAT again. They are asking to take the ACT and seeking alternatives.

One very bright Junior told me yesterday that not taking it again because she’s “happy with her score” and the benefits of being STAR student do not outweigh the test!

I’m seeing a backlash within the students and animosity that is unlike that I saw with the old test. I’ve been doing this for a while and know that things are different with this new test. For kids who have trouble taking tests, this test has truly evolved into torture. (Trust me, I’ve counseled them after the new test in tears crying that they thought they just couldn’t go through that again.)

Bottom line is that I believe that the College Board is not following best practices on administering the test. They are so concerned about recent “cheating movies” that have emerged that they have clamped down to the point of being abusive to the kids they are trying to test. Most kids (mine included) are not superstars but just average kids trying to go to as good a college as they can get into. (And what about all the kids who don’t have someone like me helping them? What about kids who are at schools who don’t make them take the SAT?)

What results is increasingly vehement resentment and opposition from students.

But what ultimately results is students’ lives who are being adversely affected because the College Board has made a mistake in proctoring and administering this once-useful test.

I’ve always been a fan of the SAT, but we’ve honestly had discussions about switching to the ACT as our focal test. There has got to be a better way of measuring the reasoning skills of students in a three hour test.

Ultimately GPA and the fact of whether a student is a self-regulated learner have traditionally indicated more about college success than any test.

Williams and Hellman (1998) measured the self-worth of 214 entering first-generation college and found strong correlations between three strategies and first semester GPA. Finishing homework assignments by deadlines, concentrating on school subjects and studying despite distractions were found to be highly correlated with first semester GPA (Pintrich, 1995).

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4 thoughts on “Why are SAT scores declining? Should the SAT count so much?

  1. I disagree that the test is harder. The math section is significantly easier, and has fewer questions–and that very easily could have led to a decline in the higher performing students.

    I wrote about it here.

  2. Cal-

    Have you TAKEN the new SAT, your information looks like a cursory analysis of statistics.

    Each year I administer and take the SAT with my students. On the “old” SAT I consistently scored where I was in high school 600-700.

    On the “new” SAT I scored lower. It was simply more difficult. Yes, you could attribute it to my aging mind . But as a person who took it 7 times in high school and 4-5 times now that I’ve been out (with my students.) I feel that I should have a grasp on the content.

    I don’t really think the critical reading section has changed that much from what I’ve seen, however, the test in January and what the student told me about that section was alarming.

    I just don’t agree that the math section is significantly easier — perhaps the statistics have some truth, however if you’re going to say it is easier overall, I think you should look at the questions.

    Other facts weigh here such as test length and testing conditions as well.

  3. “f(x) = x + y What is x?

    Well, if it had been stated y=x +y, most of my ninth graders would know that x =1. However, this simple slip into functions tripped them all up. This doesn’t test reasoning, but again, curriculum.”

    Shouldnt x = 0 not x = 1?

  4. Thanks Anon! Glad its them taking it and not me. y=x+y, y-y = x, 0=x. I typed a little too fast!

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