Scores from "New" Sat Expected to Dip

University Testing
The annual, late summer release of admissions test results for college-bound seniors is usually a humdrum affair with test-makers trying to spin profound significance out of small changes in average scores while reporters grope for any truly meaningful news. This year may be different, because the scores will be from the first high school class that took revised versions of the ACT and SAT.


When ACT releases results from its "enhanced" test on Tuesday, August 15, the focus will likely be on students' performance on the new, voluntary "writing" component. But the big story will come two weeks later when the College Board is scheduled to publicly release scores from the "new" three-part SAT, which includes a mandatory "writing" section.


Projections of SAT results have already generated controversy. Several selective colleges reported inexplicable declines in applicants' average SAT scores from 2005, ranging from 23 points at Texas Christian University, to 15 points across the University of California system, to 12 at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. Meanwhile, many high school guidance counselors have complained that scores on the "new" exam are inconsistent and that student performance was undermined by fatigue due to the test's increased length.


In 2005, when concerns about performance on the "new" SAT first emerged, College Board Director of Higher Education Research Amy Schmidt insisted, "There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the scales have remained stable, that the test was of the same difficulty and the same distribution of difficulty." This spring, however, College Board Vice President James Montoya predicted a four to five-point average decrease for combined Critical Reading and Math scores, blaming a "decrease in repeat test-taking" for some of the decline. Taking the test for a second time typically increases scores by about 30 points.


A significant decline in SAT scores would put both the College Board and many admissions offices, which rely on ever-increasing averages for "bragging rights," in difficult positions. Any unusual change in averages undermines the College Board's claim that the test is a "common yardstick" with results that are comparable from year to year. Colleges that have long claimed rising SAT scores demonstrated their growing "selectivity" will also have to explain why their numbers have dipped. At a minimum, a large score swing will further reduce the accuracy of admissions formulas that depend heavily on the tests. That, in turn, may lead a few more institutions to recognize how meaningless the fixation on test scores can be.


Earlier this year, an ad hoc coalition of more than two hundred high school counselors and admissions officers warned of a "fatigue factor" on the "new" SAT and urged that students be allowed to sit for separate sections of the test on different days. Their concerns were dismissed by College Board leaders.


Standard administration of the revised exam now takes three and three-quarter hours, nearly a third longer than the traditional test. For students granted additional time to compensate for disabilities, the "new" SAT can run nearly six hours. In addition, the basic exam registration fee rose from $28 to $41.50. The large increases in both time and cost may well have deterred some students from taking the SAT multiple times, thereby lowering average scores.


Oddly, the College Board has chosen to release its much anticipated, potentially controversial data on August 29, the first anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, a day when public and media attention is likely to be focused on recovery efforts in New Orleans and surrounding Gulf Coast areas, not on test score inconsistencies.