SAT scores dropped while ACT scores rose

Today’s 2011 SAT results provide conflicting findings on how prepared high graduates are for the rigors of college courses. On one hand, last month’s ACT results showed a slight increase in scores while this year’s SAT results show a fairly significant decline. Unfortunately, there is no clear reason for these conflicting results, especially as more students are taking both the ACT and the SAT. It could be that students are just getting more comfortable taking the ACT because it is specifically designed to be aligned with what students actually learned in high school, like the standardized tests they have been taking throughout their academic careers. The SAT is designed as a reasoning test with more abstract concepts, which may be different from what students are familiar with.

No matter the reason, the drop in SAT scores over the past several years is a cause for concern. Yes, more students are taking the SAT than ever before—which is a good thing—but that can cause scores to drop. Yet, more students are also taking the ACT and those scores have increased. With no clear national explanation, it is important for districts and individual schools to examine their own ACT and SAT results to gain a better understanding of how prepared their students actually are for college. Keep in mind that college entrance exams such as the ACT and SAT are just one indicator schools and districts can use to determine how prepared their students are for college but it is an important tool.

To learn more on how to use ACT and SAT scores and other indicators to determine how well your schools are preparing their students for college check out this video on the Center’s Data First Web site. – Jim Hull

Selected Findings

National Scores

  • The nation’s graduating Class of 2011 had an average composite score of 1500, which was lower than 2010 (1506) and much lower than in 2006 (1518), when the writing assessment was first introduced.
    • At a score of 1500, an average high school graduate has about a 75 percent chance of getting admitted into a good college*.
  • Scores declined on all three sections over the past year. Scores decreased by three points on the Critical Reading section (497), by two points on the Writing section (489) and one point on the Math section (514) from the year prior. 
  • Scores declined for most racial/ethnic groups.
    • The average combined Hispanic student score was 1358 in 2011, which is six points lower than in 2010 and 12 points lower than 2006.
    • The average Black student score was 1272 in 2011, which is five points lower than in 2010 and 19 points lower than in 2006.
    • The average White student score was 1576 in 2011, which is four points lower than the 2010 score and six points lower than in 2006.

College Readiness

  • Nearly half (43 percent) of 2011 high school graduates scored higher than 1550, which is the SAT’s new benchmark to be considered “college ready.”
    • A student who scores a combined 1550 or higher has a 65 percent chance of earning a B-minus grade point average in their freshman year courses.
  • While more than half (53 percent) of White students were college ready, just 23 percent of Hispanic students and even fewer (15 percent) of Black students reached the SAT’s college readiness benchmark.
  • Those students who took AP or Honors courses nearly doubled their chances of being college ready. Eighty-three percent students who took AP or Honors math reached the “college ready” benchmark on the math section, compared to 40 percent of students who did not take AP or Honors math.

Core Course Rigor

  • Seventy-five percent of SAT test takers completed the recommended “core” college-preparatory curriculum, which is an increase from 70 percent in 2001.
    • Just 66 percent of Black students and 69 percent of Hispanic students completed the core curriculum, compared to 80 percent of white students.
  • High school graduates who completed at least the core curriculum scored 143 points higher on the combined SAT score than students who did not complete the core curriculum.
    • A 143 point decrease in the combined SAT score for an average student decreases his or her chances of getting admitted into a good college from 75 percent to 67 percent.*
  • High school graduates who took AP or Honors courses scored significantly higher than all test takers not only in that subject area but in all three SAT sections.
    • Those who took AP or Honors English scored 163 points higher than all test takers.
    • Those who took AP or Honors Math scored 206 points higher than all test takers.

Test Takers

  • Nearly 1.65 million students from the class of 2011 took the SAT sometime during their high school career. This represents about a 6 percent increase from 2010.
  • In 25 states, at least 40 percent of high school seniors took the SAT sometime during their high school career.
  • Slightly more minority students are taking the SAT.
    • In 2011, 29 percent of SAT test takers were Hispanic or Black, compared to 20 percent in 2006. However, the increase may be due at least in part to reporting, since the percent of students who marked “No Response” to being asked their race/ethnicity decreased from 9 percent to 4 percent during this same period.
    • Furthermore, the percent of test takers who were White decreased slightly between 2006 and 2011 from 56 percent to 53 percent.
  • The vast majority (80 percent) of SAT test takers want to earn at least a bachelor’s degree. 

* Data based on calculations from the Center for Public Education’s Chasing the College Acceptance Letter: Is it harder to get into college.

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