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September 25, 2012 3:17 PM Average SAT Score Declines, As It’s Supposed To

By Daniel Luzer

SAT Scores are down, yet again.

The mean reading score this year dropped four points from last year. Writing is down five. The math score is the same. As Caitlin Peterkin writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education “by the SAT standard, less than half of college-bound seniors are ready.” But as I’ve pointed out before, a worry about a decline in standardized test scores is misplaced. SAT scores don’t decline because students get dumber; they go down because more students take them.

Tobin Harshaw gets it absolutely right at Bloomberg, explaining that,

The average score for writing dropped 1 point to 488, the lowest since the section was added in 2006. (Math scores held steady.) The College Board, which administers the test, also found that only 43 percent of seniors were prepared for college. Hooray!
Here’s why: More students, particularly minorities, are taking the test. In all, 755,000 minority students took the 2012 test — up from 600,000 in 2008 — making up 45 percent of test-takers. In addition, 458,000 of the students reported that they did not speak English as their first language, and 36 percent of test-takers did not have a parent who attended college.

In fact, SAT scores have declined dramatically since the College Board first administered the test. In the early days of the SAT the only people who took it were a few few students planning to go to American’s most prestigious colleges. The average score was about 1000 (on the original scale). The more high schools encouraged students to take the test, the lower the average score went. This is why the College Board re-centered the examination in 1995, to bring the average back to 1000.

Granted, one can’t take declining SATs to mean that students are more prepared for college. If the same increase in takers (and more ethnic minorities and students from poor families took the test all across the nation) resulted in higher averages observers might be able to conclude that the nation’s high schools were doing a great job. Clearly, they aren’t.

But it’s very strange that the SAT decline generates the exact same discussion (“SAT Scores Decline: Our Schools Are Failing”) every single year. This indicates a very poor understanding of what the examination is supposed to reflect.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer