SAT Reading Scores Reach Record Low

SAT reading scores for the high school class of 2011 were the lowest on record, according to the College Board.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Reading scores for high school students taking the SAT this year were the lowest on record. That's over the nearly 30 years students have been taking the exam. The scores are part of the entrance requirements at many colleges and universities.

And as NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, the results have education officials scrambling to understand exactly why they're so bad.

KATHY LOHR: More than 1.6 million students took the exams and their scores in critical reading, math, and writing all dropped. Most people are concerned about the reading scores, which fell by three points from last year.

Dr. JAMES MONTOYA: It is the most diverse class of SAT takers in the history of the program.

LOHR: James Montoya is with the College Board, the group that released the scores. He says 44 percent of those who took the test were minority students. And just over a third of all test-takers were the first in their families to attempt to go to college.

MONTOYA: We have made a concerted effort to reach out, particularly to underserved students. Often our underserved students come from high schools where they simply have not been prepared as well as they should be. So these scores are not surprising.

LOHR: Montoya says one in five came from low-income families and qualified to take the test free. And more than one quarter of the students came from homes where English is not the only language spoken.

Other education experts says it's true that scores tend to fall slightly when a larger number of students take the exams, but they're also concerned about long-term trends.

Bob Schaeffer is with FairTest, a group that monitors standardized tests, including the SAT. He says reading, math and writing scores have dropped steadily since 2006.

BOB SCHAEFFER: What we've seen in the past five years is that scores have declined an aggregate of 18 points over the three tests, and that is very significant.

LOHR: Schaeffer says the declines are due in part to the federal No Child Left Behind Act that mandates statewide standardized testing. He argues, as a result, schools are not teaching critical thinking skills and not educating kids properly.

SCHAEFFER: The dictates of No Child Left Behind are narrowing curriculum and dumbing-down teaching and learning starting in the earliest grades. Kids are tested now in every grade from three to eight and once in high school in both reading and math. And that's what's driving the curriculum and undermining student learning.

LOHR: Many education experts say students finishing high school are not as ready for college as they should be, that this demonstrates schools need to develop a more rigorous curriculum.

Joan Lord is with the Southern Regional Education Board.

Dr. JOAN LORD: We think paying attention to advanced levels of reading instruction as early as the middle grades, and extending that all the way through high school, is critically important. And we believe that strong math instruction, strong science instruction all the way through high school are incredibly important.

LOHR: The College Board also came out with a new benchmark report this year. It says students who get a score of 1550 out of 1800 on the SAT have a good chance of getting a B-minus average as a freshman in college. But those who took the test didn't do very well even by that measure. Just 43 percent reached the goal.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

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