SAT Score Drop May Reflect New Test Takers

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The College Board announces the results of the latest round of SAT scores. Scores are down compared with last year — one point on average in reading and three points in writing and math. The differences are small, and may reflect changes in who's taking the test.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

The SAT scores are out today, and they're down slightly from a year ago - one point in reading and three points in both math and writing. It's a pretty small decline considering that each section of the test is 800 points.

As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, when you look at who's taking the test these days, the news isn't too bad.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Every year, students' performance on the SAT comes down to the pool of students who take the test. And this year's class is the most diverse ever.

Mr. LAURENCE BUNIN (Senior Vice President, College Board): There are more African-American, Asian American and Hispanic SAT takers in the class of 2007 than in any previous class.

SANCHEZ: Laurence Bunin is senior vice president of the College Board - the sponsor of the SAT - and the man who oversees the SAT.

Mr. BUNIN: Hispanic students represent the largest and fastest-growing population among these groups. Students who do not have English exclusively as their first language make up 24 percent of the class compared to 17 percent 10 years ago and 13 percent 20 years ago.

SANCHEZ: Of the one and a half million college-bound high school students who took the SAT, nearly four out of ten were ethnic or racial minorities. The number of blacks who took the test is up 6 percent; Latinos are up 24 percent. More than a third of all test takers will be the first in the families to attend college. There are also more low-income kids taking the test than ever.

Students from wealthy and middle class families still far outnumber low-income students. Income, experts say, is the single biggest predictor of how well students do on the test. Another predictor is whether a student attended a good high school with good teachers and lots of tough courses, or a bad high school with neither. So you think that with more and more poor minority students taking the SAT - often with little or no academic or financial support - the gap between rich and poor would've widened, but it hasn't, says Bunin.

Mr. BUNIN: For example, in critical reading, the score gap between African-American students and the overall SAT population is the lowest it's been in 20 years.

SANCHEZ: Which is not to say that black students, overall, low scores are not a concern, says Bunin, or that anyone should ignore the 34-point gap between females and males in math with the overall 112-point gap between wealthy and low-income students. But the best way to deal with these gaps is to deal with the fact that poor minority students are less likely to attend good schools says Wayne Camara, head of research at the College Board.

Dr. WAYNE CAMARA (Vice President of Research and Development, College Board): So there are lots of discrepancies in terms of the communities that individuals live in, the quality of education, the access to those educations, but it's not a reflection of the test or the test items. It's much more a reflection of the quality and the access to education and opportunity to learn that exists across the country.

SANCHEZ: Although the College Board is downplaying this year's stagnant SAT scores, it has clearly set out to change one thing high schools often don't do very well - teach kids how to write.

In its first ever survey of high school faculty, the College Board found that most teachers like the new writing section on the SAT because it has raised the overall importance of writing as a skill that's crucial for success in college. The next step, College Board officials say, is to document the lasting effects of this and other recent changes on the SAT by tracking students until they graduate from college.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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