Commentary | Education

Lessons—Positive Trends Hidden in SAT and ACT Scores

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Positive Trends Hidden in SAT and ACT Scores

By Richard Rothstein

The College Board released new national average SAT scores yesterday. Math is up three points to 514, with verbal scores unchanged at 505.

Critics have often used this annual report to lament the state of American schools. But interpreting the SAT is more complex than it seems. SAT trends would reflect school quality changes only if every 18-year-old took the test. Not all do.

Average scores are affected by who takes the SAT. If only the brightest seniors take it, averages are higher. If more lower-ranked seniors aspire to college and take the test, this could indicate better performance by schools, but still depress the average.

While, by themselves, overall SAT averages are faulty indicators of school quality, more careful analysis suggests rarely noticed improvements in public education.

Even average scores are more positive than most people believe. Math gains have been steady since 1980. While verbal scores fell in the 1970’s and 1980’s, they grew from 1990 to 1995 and have since been stable. But these data by themselves tell little about school quality because SAT test takers are not representative of all students.

Of the test-takers, disadvantaged minority students usually score lower than whites, who are mostly middle class, even when scores of both groups are rising. So when black students with lower — but rising — scores become a larger share of test-takers, the overall average can grow slowly, even though black and white scores each go up faster.

The College Board reports how many seniors take the SAT, but this number can also be misleading. If dropouts increase, the share of seniors taking the SAT could rise, even if fewer 18-year-olds prepare for college. It would be better to look at test-takers as a percent of the entire age group, whether in school or out.

And there is another complication. Only about half of those applying to selective colleges take the SAT. Others, mostly in the Midwest and South, take a similar test, the ACT, once called American College Testing. Because Eastern colleges want the SAT, it gets more national publicity.

Accurate analyses need data from both. For example, Iowa’s average SAT score is higher than New York’s, but this says nothing about school quality in the two states. Iowans taking the SAT are typically only those who can afford Eastern college tuition. Most Iowa students take the ACT, which is required by local colleges, so the state’s average ACT scores are relatively lower.

This year’s ACT results were also just released. An analysis of both tests suggests, but does not prove, progress in minority education, with whites also showing gains.

In 1976, when scores were first reported by race, the number of black SAT and ACT test-takers combined was equal to 20 percent of all black 18-year-olds. By this year, it nearly doubled, to 38 percent. This big growth in black students aiming for college should result in lower average scores, because test-taking is no longer restricted only to the brightest black students.

Yet average black scores have risen while the share of the age group taking tests has also grown. In 1995, the College Board changed its scoring scale; the ACT changed in 1989. Scores reported here have been converted to the new scales.

Average black SAT scores, math and verbal combined, have risen from 790 in 1976 to 860 today. Black students’ ACT scores have risen from 15.1 to 17.0. (An ACT score of 17.0 is similar to 830 on the SAT.)

The picture is also positive for whites. White SAT and ACT test-takers have climbed from 32 percent to 57 percent of all 18-year-olds. So even if schools improved, average score declines should be expected. Yet white scores, math and verbal combined, have gone to 1,058 from 1,043 on the SAT, and to 21.8 from 21.1 on the ACT. (An ACT score of 21.8 is similar to 1,022 on the SAT.) Again, both verbal and math scores have gone up.

More 18-year-olds are taking these tests, but that is not sufficient proof that more lower-ranked seniors do so. Perhaps many good students did not take the tests in 1976 because they could not afford college, and now such students can.

But this is an implausible explanation for what seems to be a democratizing trend, with rising achievement. Scores for blacks and whites have both grown over the last 24 years, and the gap between them has narrowed, even while test-takers have probably become less elite.

Last week, the Department of Education reported that the gap started to grow again in the 1990’s on representative national tests. On the SAT, the gap also recently widened, but only because scores grew faster for whites than blacks, with both rising.

No single indicator, whether the SAT, ACT or other exam, should be used by itself to evaluate American education. But policy-makers have been content for too long with glib analyses of the SAT. Along with the ACT, it possibly reveals an unrecognized trend of school improvement.

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