Average SAT scores for California's high school seniors also declined… (Mario Tama / Getty Images )
The high school graduating class of 2011 lost ground on every measure of the SAT exam, with reading scores nationally the lowest on record, prompting concern about whether students are being adequately prepared for college, officials said Wednesday.
Average SAT scores for high school seniors dropped three points in reading, one point in math and two points in writing, according to a report by the College Board, a New York-based nonprofit that administers the SAT and Advanced Placement program.
The combined average SAT score of 1500 was six points below last year and 18 points off the 2006 mark. A perfect score on the three-section test is 2400.
Average SAT scores for California's high school seniors also dipped slightly compared with last year, with test takers averaging 1,513 points. Students in the state scored an average of 499 in critical reading, 515 in mathematics and 499 in writing. The score for critical reading was down two points and for math and writing were each down one point from 2010.
The College Board said that more students than ever are taking the exam, nearly 1.65 million nationally, 222,658 of them in California. That represents 53% of California high school graduates, up 4% from 2010 and 13% from 2007. Nearly 65% of California test takers were ethnic minorities.
The increasing representation of students from varied ethnic, economic and academic backgrounds may factor into the lower scores nationally, said College Board leaders, who noted that there were also more high-performing students in the class of 2011 than before.
"We've made great strides in the past five or 10 years in increasing access," Wayne Camara, vice president of research and development, said during a telephone briefing. "As we reach more students who have less resources, scores will tend to drop."
But Camara acknowledged that the downward trend is cause for concern, and he suggested that national, state and local educators look to the rigor of school curriculum.
The SAT report found, for example, that students who completed a core high school curriculum — defined as four or more years of English, three of math, three of natural science and three of social science and history — scored 143 points higher on average than those who did not take those courses.
Last month, the annual scores released by an SAT rival exam, the ACT, found that only about 25% of the class of 2011 met college readiness benchmarks in English composition, college algebra, introductory social science and biology. The benchmarks suggest the students would succeed without the need for remedial instruction.
Other experts said that recent efforts to better prepare students in advanced math and science have not been matched in reading and writing. The newest SAT scores should raise a red flag for policymakers, said Jim Hull, senior policy analyst for the National School Boards Assn.'s Center for Public Education.
"Everyone thinks of 21st century skills as math, science and computers, but we're finding that being able to communicate with the written word in a variety of formats is going to be one of the most essential tools," Hull said.
The College Board for the first time released its own college readiness benchmark, calculating that a combined score of 1550 or above indicated a high likelihood of attaining at least a B-minus average in the freshman year of college.
For critics, the exam results as well as its continuing ethnic and gender score gaps are evidence of the nation's flawed emphasis on standardized tests. More colleges are making the SAT and ACT optional, but they remain a key component of admissions at most schools.