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Despite some bad news in national SAT results, analysts say worrying is premature

The College Board, which oversees undergraduate and graduate school entrance exams, released results for the 2011 SATs, revealing mixed news: More students took the test than ever before, posting scores that are some of the lowest in history.

On reading comprehension, the 1.65 million students who filled out answer sheets earned a mean score of 497 out of a possible 800 — a three-point drop off from 2010. Comparatively, the results in 2005 showed a mean score of 507.

Here is a break down of the scores compared to previous years, provided by College Board, with CR standing for critical reading, and M and W standing for math and writing:

College-Bound Seniors Mean Scores SAT Takers All Schools SAT Takers Public Schools CR M W CR M W 2007 College-Bound Seniors 501 514 493 497 508 487 2010 College-Bound Seniors 500 515 491 497 510 486 2011 College-Bound Seniors 497 514 489 494 506 483

Accounting for the declining scores is the growth in the diversity of students participating in the exam. The College Board wrote in a press release:

  • 44 percent were minority students

Among SAT takers in the class of 2011, 44 percent were minority students, making this the most diverse class of SAT takers ever.

  • 36 percent were first-generation college goers

545,010 of SAT takers in the class of 2011 report being the first in their family to attend college

  • 27 percent do not speak exclusively English

431,319 of SAT takers in the class of 2011 report that English was not the only language first learned at home.

And just as school performance is linked to socio-economic conditions, so goes the trend among test takers who qualified for a fee-waiver of the exam, an indicator of lower economic means:

  • More than 350,000 students utilize SAT fee waivers

More than 21 percent of SAT test takers in the graduating class of 2011 took the SAT for free through the SAT Fee Waiver Program.

  • 77 percent increase since 2007The number of college-bound seniors who benefited from SAT fee waivers increased nearly 77 percent since 2007 (from 198,729 students in the class of 2007 to 351,068 students in the class of 2011).

Brian Stecher, Senior Social Scientist at the RAND Corporation, told The American Independent a researcher’s analytical strategy for looking at how factors might have been related is to consider the change in the pool of students taking the SATs.

“As the population that takes the test expands beyond, say, the most successful and most college-ready, and includes a larger number of students, then we can expect the scores to decline,” Stecher said.

He added, however, that the relationship between the volume of students and the variation in mean scores is not a fixed one. He said researchers should evaluate whether the rate of increased diversity among test takers is in sync with the rate in decline of the scores. Stecher also pointed out the ACT took over the SAT this year in student participation, skewing historical trends.

Students enrolled in advanced courses performed better on average than the rest of the pool. The College Board provided the following numbers:

Mean Scores Students CR M W Taking AP or Honors English 556 560 547 All Test-Takers 497 514 489 Difference +59 +46 +58 Taking AP or Honors Math 561 590 553 All Test-Takers 497 514 489 Difference +64 +76 +64 Some organizations took the published results as an opportunity to criticize the education landscape at large. Bob Schaeffer of FairTest.org [said](http://www.fairtest.org/large-2011-SAT-score-decline-shows-NCLB-failure), “[P]roponents of [No Child Left Behind] and similar state-level testing programs promised that overall achievement would improve while score gaps would narrow. Precisely the opposite has taken place.”

He added: “Policymakers need to embrace very different policies if they are committed to real education reform.”

A press release by the group expounded on Schaeffer’s criticism:

A FairTest analysis shows that overall SAT averages dropped significantly under the NCLB federal testing mandate. At the same time, gaps between Whites, Asians, and historically disadvantaged African-Americans and Hispanics have been growing larger. ACT scores, made public last month, demonstrated similar patterns.

But Matthew Di Carlo of the Albert Shanker Institute warns against drawing too many conclusions from the SATs.

“These tests are voluntary, and the sample of students who choose to take one or both can be very different from one year to the next in terms of their demographic, academic and other characteristics,” Di Carlo told TAI. “Overall score changes between years, especially small changes, might just as easily be due to this self-selection as to any ‘real’ change in aptitude of U.S. students.”

Beyond the increased diversity of the test pool, the College Board pointed to additional good news: 43 percent of test takers scored above a 1550 cumulatively, the score the firm says separates students who are likely to perform well in college to those who will struggle. Breaking that threshold, the press release explains, means students have a 65 percent change of averaging a B- or better in their first year of college.

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