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Average Scores for SAT Tests Drop as Pool of Students Who Take Test Widens

September 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Many parents and teachers have looked to SAT scores as a measure for the quality of education students receive. This year, national average scores on SAT reading and writing tests edged down while math scores remained stagnant. Ray Suarez talks to College Board's Jim Montoya and University of Oregon's Roger Thompson for more.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Next, two education stories.

The first is about whether students are ready for college and what the SATs tell us.

Ray Suarez has that.

RAY SUAREZ: The latest scores are out for the high school class of 2012, the new freshmen starting work at colleges across the country. And the news is not good. The College Board, which oversees the SAT, reports that 57 percent of seniors do not seem ready for college based on their test scores.

The board also reported that reading scores have fallen to their lowest point in four decades. Out of a perfect score of 800 in each category, the mean reading score fell slightly to 491, writing dropped by a point to 481, and math dropped one point to 505.

Since 2008, reading and writing scores have dipped, while math has remained stable. What do these scores tell us about students’ readiness?

We get two views. Jim Montoya is a vice president of the College Board. He is a former dean of admissions for Stanford University.

And Roger Thompson is the vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Oregon. The state system has more than 24,000 students; 20,000 of them are undergraduates.

And, Jim Montoya, if, as the College Board maintains, SAT measures the skills needed for college success, what do some of the lowest scores in 40 years lead you to conclude?

JIM MONTOYA, College Board: Well, what we are to conclude is that students need to take more rigorous courses in high school.

We have to have higher expectations of our students.

What we know is this, that of those students who complete a core curriculum, four years of English, at least three years of mathematics, at least three years of science, and at least three years of social science, compared to those who students who didn’t complete a core curriculum, those students completing a core curriculum scored 144 points higher on the SAT.

RAY SUAREZ: What do we know about the predictive value of the test itself?

You have a threshold for college readiness. If you go into an institution of higher learning without reaching that threshold, are you automatically going to fail, not complete? What do we know?

JIM MONTOYA: Absolutely not. That threshold is a guide. It allows us to look at groups of students.

What we know is that the group of students who meet the threshold have a 65 percent likelihood of achieving a B-minus GPA or higher during their freshman year.

Obviously, there are other factors that admission officers take into consideration. But it does help guide us in thinking about where we are and the need to have more students better prepared for college.

Currently, of 100 ninth graders, 44 will go on to college. And yet only 21 will graduate within a six-year period. This is highly problematic.

RAY SUAREZ: Roger Thompson, are you seeing those low scores writ large in your applicant pool and your entering classes?

ROGER THOMPSON, University of Oregon: Well, we’re certainly seeing more students take the SAT.

And I think that’s one of the things that we need to think about when we consider how scores are changing over time.

If you look at the test scores, we have got far more students participating than we did 20 years ago. And that creates sort of a two sides to the same coin.

With more students participating, naturally, we’re going to have more students who are not college-bound taking the SAT. And in one sense, that drives the score a little bit lower. On the other hand, we are seeing some challenges, particularly in math and science.

You cited the changes that we have begun to see in the verbal and reading. And all of that leads me to be concerned as an administrator about the preparation that’s happening in our K-12 school systems around the country.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what kind of feedback are you getting from your instructors who teach freshmen? Are they not as prepared as they ought to be?

ROGER THOMPSON: Well, I think we’re fortunate at the University of Oregon in that we see more prepared students than maybe some others in the higher education marketplace.

But what our faculty are indicating is that our students are doing well, but mathematics continues to be a stumbling point for a lot of students, not just at the University of Oregon, but across the country.

And we just had our high school advisory board in last week. This is made up of principals from around the country.

And one of the things that we focused on was how do we create reasonable rigor in high schools, so that a student is taking a curriculum that challenges them, yet also prepares them for college and leads them to a higher success rate when they get here?

RAY SUAREZ: Jim Montoya, the class of 2012 has grown up, almost their entire K-12 careers, under the new standards of No Child Left Behind. They have been tested an awful lot. How come that hasn’t prepared them to do better on the SAT?

JIM MONTOYA: Well, again the focus has to be on the rigor of the curriculum, as Roger points out.

I think we have to hold our students to a higher standard. I think we have to make absolutely certain that students are just not taking the minimum core curriculum, but are taking honors courses, taking advanced placement courses, courses that will better prepare them for the rigor that they will face once in college.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Roger Thompson, same question.

Has No Child Left Behind and more consistent standardized testing created a pool of students that should be no strangers to sitting down for a long, demanding test?

ROGER THOMPSON: Yes, I really agree with your comment.

I think, if we look at this generation, they have grown up as the most tested, probed and analyzed group probably in a long time.

And so I think it’s not about test anxiety. That was something we heard years ago. I don’t think that’s as big an issue now.

When I think about what helps a student succeed, I think of three things, always. And that’s academic preparation, social integration, and financial.

And if we were to look at our college students entering today, I think two of those three are really problematic. You know, academically, we have a lot of school districts not just in our state, but across the country, that are really cutting back on some of their course offerings.

The economy has led schools to consider things that I don’t think they would have considered 15 or 20 years ago.

And then, when you combine that with the financial challenges that families face, the first place a family turns many times to support their child’s education is their home with home equity loans.

Well, home values are down. And so, I think there’s a lot of things that are stressing our students and our families. And those are factors. And academic preparation is one big factor that can prevent success.

RAY SUAREZ: Quickly, Jim Montoya, before we go, respond to Roger Thompson’s point about family finances and the downward pressure that might put on scores.

JIM MONTOYA: Well, there is no question that, as families look to the cost of college, certainly, they worry about how they’re going to pay for it.

But I go back to the important point of — that Roger made in regards to academic preparation. More of our students need to be enrolled in rigorous courses that will prepare them for the challenges they will face in college.

RAY SUAREZ: Jim Montoya, Roger Thompson, gentlemen, thank you both.

JIM MONTOYA: Thank you.

ROGER THOMPSON: Thank you.