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Class of 2007's SAT scores decline

Officials attribute the slight drop to the record number of students taking the college admissions exam.

August 29, 2007|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

The 2007 high school graduating class in California and across the nation scored slightly worse on the SAT college admissions exam than students did a year ago, officials said Tuesday. Small declines were seen in all three sections of the test, including the essay-writing portion that began two years ago.

Officials of the College Board, the nonprofit organization that owns the exam, said the declines were not statistically significant and were partly caused by a record number of test-takers, including more students for whom English was not exclusively their first language. More than 1.49 million people in the class of 2007 took the exam, up about 2% from last year.

On average nationwide, the critical-reading score was 502, one point lower than last year. The average math score was 515 and the average essay-writing score was 494 -- each three points lower than last year.

In California, the 195,406 test-takers averaged a 499 score in critical reading and 516 in math, each down two points from the year before; essay writing was 498, down three points.

Each segment of the SAT is scored on a scale of 200 to 800 points; a perfect score would be 2,400, which was achieved by 269 students nationwide this year.

Students are allowed three hours and 45 minutes for the test, tackling the essay first and then mostly multiple-choice questions in the other sections.

Last year, scores showed some of the worst drops in three decades. This year's combined national average for critical reading and math -- 1,017 -- was the lowest since the 1,016 total eight years ago.

Some analysts attributed those drops to the fatigue caused by a longer test with essay writing. "For teenagers, it's exhausting. Your peak performance is faded by hour three and you don't ever want to do the marathon again," said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, an organization that is a longtime critic of the SAT. He said the College Board should study proposals to spread the test over two days and to make the essay writing optional.

However, the College Board suggested that declines in 2006 were partly because of fewer students taking the exam more than once; scores often go up on a second test.

This year's small declines probably were caused by a larger pool of test-takers, according to Laurence Bunin, the College Board's senior vice president of operations. Among other things, he cited a new requirement in Maine that all high school students -- not just the college-bound -- take the SAT. In trends that may have a similar effect, about 24% of test-takers did not have English as their sole first language, compared with 17% a decade ago, and more test-takers qualified for SAT low-income fee waivers.

"I am encouraged by the greater number of students from all walks of life who are taking on the challenge of the SAT and college," said College Board President Gaston Caperton.

Nationwide, males continue to do a bit better than females in critical reading (males averaged 504; females, 502) and significantly better in math (533 to 499). However, the 2-year-old essay section has become a showcase for females, who averaged 500 compared with 489 for males.

Significant gaps continued among ethnic groups, even though some minorities showed small gains in some test portions. Combining all three test segments, Asians and Asian Americans scored 1,605, on average; whites, 1,579; Mexicans and Mexican Americans, 1,371; and African Americans, 1,287.

Christine Parker, a consultant for the Princeton Review, a test prep company, said the College Board might tout that more minority students took the SAT but a more worrisome issue was that many of them were not showing improvement.

Tuesday's announcement came less than a week after the news of a proposed $2.85-million settlement from the College Board and scoring firm NCS Pearson Inc. to more than 4,400 students who incorrectly received low scores on their 2005 SATs. Under the suggested payout, each wronged test-taker would receive at least $275.

Last year, the College Board instituted reforms to prevent scoring mistakes. Those changes included plans to scan each answer sheet twice and ensuring that humidity doesn't again deform the sheets. Bunin said that he was "absolutely confident" in the 2007 scores.

The College Board for the first time on Tuesday reported results of a study on whether students went to college in or out of their home states. Californians and North Carolinians topped the list with 90.4% of their public high school graduates who took the SAT last year not crossing state lines to attend college. The national average was 78.5%.

California's huge range of public universities and community colleges makes it more likely for students to stay in the state, as does the sheer size of the Golden State. "A student can move 200 miles away and still be in the center of the state," said Wayne Camara, the College Board's vice president for research and development. Another factor may be the large cohort of Californians as the first generation of their family to attend college; those students tend to enroll closer to home than people in the second or third generation of college attendance, he said.

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larry.gordon@latimes.com

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