School Talk

Higher SAT scores no cause for celebration–fewer than half of test-takers are college ready

SAT scores are way up this year, the College Board reported this week. And that might be cause for celebration, if you wanted to ignore these three facts.

The test is easier than it was a year ago.

The achievement gap between students of different races and parental education levels is just as entrenched as ever.

And fewer than half of students – only 46%– met the college readiness benchmarks on math, reading and writing. Terrible news for a nation that is pushing hard to improve its mediocre college outcomes.

Some 1.8 million students in the graduating class of 2017 took the new SATs, more than in any previous class. They scored an average of 527 in math and 533 in reading and writing. These scores cannot be fairly compared to the 2016 scores—508 in math, 494 in reading, and 482 in writing–because the two tests are so different.

Here’s how it’s changed, said this Education Week article:

In redesigning the SAT, the College Board aimed to build a more straightforward test that reflects the strengths students will need for college. It dumped obscure vocabulary words in favor of requiring students to justify their answers. It covers fewer math topics, but in more depth. It’s also shorter, with no penalty for wrong answers.

I actually think that changing the test was a great idea, because I don’t think students should be penalized for wrong answers or guessing; nor should it be a measure of how fast you can get a right answer. I might be a fan of the obscure vocabulary words, but it was one of the aspects of the test that made it culturally biased. For that reason, I was hoping we might see some closing of the race gaps. But that didn’t happen. As the article explains:

The 2017 SAT scores show inequities similar to those of earlier years. Asian (1181), white (1118), and multiracial (1103) students score far above the average composite score of 1060, while Hispanic (990) and African-American (941) students score significantly below it.

Because the new test is reported for two sections instead of three, the maximum composite score a student can get is now 1600 rather than 2400 for the previous version.

Likewise, scores continue to correlate with family educational background. The composite average score of students whose parents have bachelor’s degrees (1118) far outstrips the average of students whose parents have only a high school diploma (1003).

So we’ll have to call this year a draw–a new test with some mixed results and confusion for college admission officers. The College Board predicts the upward trajectory will continue next year, and bear out the idea that the changes will show genuine progress for high school students. We can only hope this turns out to be true. Having 54 percent of our college aspirants unprepared for college is a national embarrassment.

This piece first ran at the blog Head in the Sand here.

What do you think?

More Comments