At first glance this bit of news from the AP seems a foreboding sign for the future of the country:
Scores on the critical reading portion of the SAT college entrance exam fell three points to their lowest level on record last year, and combined reading and math scores reached their lowest point since 1995.
But the College Board, which issues the SAT, warns that the class of 2011 was one of the biggest and most diverse to take the exam.
"It is common for mean scores to decline slightly when the number of students taking an exam increases because more students of varied academic backgrounds are represented in the test-taking pool," College Board explains. "However, a decline in mean scores does not necessarily mean a decline in performance. There are more high-performing students among the class of 2011 than ever before."
According to the AP's analysis, however, the decline is significant. A three-point decline in mean reading scores has only happened twice in the last two decades. The AP adds:
Other recent tests of reading skills, such as the National Assessment of Education Progress, have shown reading skills of high-school students holding fairly steady. And the pool of students who take the SAT is tilted toward college-goers and not necessarily representative of all high school students.
But the relatively poor performance on the SATs could raise questions whether reading and writing instruction need even more emphasis to accommodate the country's changing demographics.
Education Week took a close look at the numbers and spoke to some education experts who seem to agree with College Board's explanation. Education Week does point out a couple of things, though:
— The acievement gap is still evident: "In reading, while white students' average score was 528, it was 451 for Latino students, down from 454 last year. For African-American students, it was even at 428. In math, whites in this year's cohort had a mean score of 535, while Latino students' scores were up from 462 to 463 and blacks were even at 427. Writing dropped for blacks from 418 to 417, for Latinos from 446 to 444, and the mean score for white students was flat at 516. All changes were statistically significant."
— "Bob Wise, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and a former governor of West Virginia, says the increase in the number of students taking the SAT is positive, but the college-entrance-test results clearly show the need for a lot more work in K-12 schools. "The workforce needs and skill needs in our society are rising, unfortunately, much faster than our SAT or ACT scores," he said."