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What accounts for the dramatic dip in SAT scores?

September 6, 2015 at 3:36 PM EDT
The scores for the SAT this year were at the lowest they have been since the exam was overhauled a decade ago. Bloomberg education reporter Janet Lorin joins Alison Stewart for more on the dramatic dip in scores.

ALISON STEWART: From measuring the reading skills of elementary school students, we turn to testing high school students eying college.

This year’s scores for the SAT were released this week, and they are the lowest since the test was revamped a decade ago. This year, the average total score was 1490 out of a possible 2400, down from 1497 last year and 1498 the year before. The average math score was 511 out of a possible 800, the lowest since 1999. And the average reading score was 495, the lowest since 1972.

So, what do these numbers mean?

Joining me now to discuss that is Bloomberg News reporter Janet Lorin.

Did anything significant change about the test in the past year or two that would point to the decline?

JANET LORIN, Bloomberg News: Well, we know that more people are taking the test.

This year, we had a record number of test-takers. And part of the reason was because the College Board was able to get more states to pay to take — for every student to take the test.


JANET LORIN: So, when you have more people taking it, the socioeconomic diversity is going to be different, and that could be certainly one reason for it.

Next year, we are going to see pretty significant changes with the SAT. Starting in March, it is going to be a completely new test. It is actually going to look a lot more like the ACT, its competitor. You won’t be penalized for wrong answers. Those esoteric words that everybody studied for, those are going to be gone.

It’s going to be testing more, supposedly, what you know in school, and there will be an optional writing test.

ALISON STEWART: Let’s talk about that population a little bit. So, the population expanded, and you had more students who were perhaps underserved…


ALISON STEWART: … taking the test?


You know, when the state is paying for every student to take the test, you have a range of students taking it, rather than, you know, typically more wealthy students had taken it, and they had also gotten a lot of test prep.

One thing we hear a lot of is that high test scores correlate with income. So it shouldn’t be surprising that wealthier kids do better on this test. In fact, in the last couple of years, you have seen quite a number of very selective colleges say, we are not going to this as a measure for admissions, schools with such brand names like Wesleyan and Connecticut and Brandeis.

ALISON STEWART: So, how is the SAT going to stay relevant if you have competitive colleges saying, you know what, it’s optional?

JANET LORIN: That’s a good question.

For some schools that attract, you know, 30,000 applications, they still want some — some measure, in addition to your grade-point average and other things. You know, it is a way to benchmark students. And when they are getting thousands, it is just practical to keep that requirement in there.

ALISON STEWART: So, this writing portion of the test has been in for about the past decade. Did it have any influence on the lowering of the test scores?

JANET LORIN: Well, the writing test, as you can see from the charts, has gone down.

And it’s — some people had criticized because it, in some ways, could be gamed. It was writing, you know, not necessarily about anything that would be fact-based, but it would be sort of like an essay. And a criticism was, you could actually memorize a couple of points to include, and it didn’t actually matter if it was factual.

And, you know, it wasn’t necessarily scored about an excellent piece of writing. It was, did you use some big words and things like that?

ALISON STEWART: So, what do the folks at the College Board and SAT think about these scores? What — how are they deciding to address this issue?

JANET LORIN: Well, they say, you know, of course, it is not good that the scores are down, but perhaps this is a reason why they are changing the test, to measure, you know, learning in a better way.

ALISON STEWART: Janet Lorin from Bloomberg, thanks for sharing your reporting.

JANET LORIN: Thanks for having me.