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A PROJECT OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS AND SCIENCES

     
       
Indicator I-5 Performance on SAT Verbal/Critical Reading and Writing Exams
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Updated (6/25/2010).

Although controversy over the SAT persists on a number of fronts, the verbal portion of the SAT (renamed “critical reading” in 2005) is a valuable measure of college-bound seniors’ linguistic skills, because the test has been administered for several decades and thus permits comparison over an extended period of time. The SAT data reveal a steep decline between 1967 and the early 1980s in mean verbal scores,1 followed by a leveling off, with mean scores ranging between approximately 500 and 510 ever since (Figure I-5a; scores have been adjusted to take into account the 1995 recentering of the scoring system).

Figure I-5a, Full Size
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As was widely reported at the time, SAT verbal scores declined relatively sharply in 2006, with the combined male and female scores showing their furthest drop since 1975. The College Board, the body that administers the SAT, attributed the drop to a decline in the number of students who retook the exam (examinees’ scores tend to increase substantially the second time they take the test). Observers had speculated that this drop in scores was due to the increased length of the exam, which included a new writing section. College Board officials responded that an analysis of approximately 700,000 tests produced no evidence to support this theory.2 The average verbal score in 2009 was 501, down two points from 2006.

The average SAT math score also declined over the course of the 1970s. But unlike the SAT verbal average, which has remained fairly constant over the last two decades, the mean score on the quantitative portion of the math exam has risen steadily since its low point in 1980. Between 1967 and the late 1980s, average math scores were consistently lower than those on the verbal exam. But with the steady improvement of math scores and the stagnation of verbal scores, American students were demonstrating somewhat stronger math than verbal skills by 1990. The gap has grown since then, so that by 2006 the mean math score was 15 points higher than the verbal score. Things have changed little since that year; in 2009 the difference was 14 points. This is a profound reversal from the state of affairs in 1967, when the average verbal score exceeded the math score by 27 points.

Male students’ average verbal SAT score has been consistently higher than that of female students since the early 1970s. Initially the gap was small, but the disparity grew, and during the 1980s the gender gap in verbal scores ranged from 10 to 13 points. The gap has narrowed since then, with female examinees’ scores coming within five points of male scores in 2009.

The difference in mean scores between white and minority groups is more pronounced (Figure I-5b). Mean verbal scores for most ethnic groups increased between 1992 and 2009. The greatest gains, by a substantial margin, were made by students who self-identified as Asian, Asian American, or Pacific Islander. In 2009, these students scored 29 points higher, on average, than they had in the early 1990s. However, white students still performed better than all other groups. The gap between African American and white scores has been particularly large, with white examinees scoring 99 points higher, on average, in 2009.

Figure I-5b, Full Size
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High school seniors graduating in 2006 were the first to take the SAT’s new writing test, which includes both multiple-choice questions and a student-written essay. The mean score on the writing test for all college-bound seniors was 497 in that year (Figure1-5c), with female students scoring higher than their male counterparts, on average (502 v. 491).3 Three years later, the average score for all college bound seniors had declined (four points), as had the average for every ethnic/national group, with the exception of Asians. The latter group’s average score was eight points higher in 2009 than in 2006, bringing it above that for whites. Every other minority group’s average was lower than that for white students. The magnitude of the performance gap between each of these groups and whites was similar to that for the verbal exam. Between 2006 and 2009 the gap between average female and male performance on the writing examination increased from 11 to 13 points.4

Figure I-5c, Full Size
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Notes
1 A flurry of research during the late 1970s and early 1980s that sought to explain the decline arrived at no consensus. The decline seems to be attributable, at least in part, to the increasing accessibility of higher education and the greater diversity of high school graduates taking the SAT. Proposed explanations for the remainder of the drop range from the changing design of the SAT, to simplification of textbook language, to primary- and secondary-school teachers’ decreasing emphasis on Standard English.

2 The College Board’s findings are described by Xiang Bo Wang, Investigating the Effects of Increased SAT Reasoning Test Length and Time on Performance of Regular SAT Examinees, Research Report no. 2006-9 (New York: The College Board, 2007), http://professionals.collegeboard.com/profdownload/pdf/07409RDCBRpt2006-9.pdf.

3 The College Board, “Total Group Profile Report: 2006 College-Bound Seniors” (New York: The College Board, 2006); available online at http://www.collegeboard.com/prod_downloads/about/news_info/cbsenior/yr2006/national-report.pdf).

4 The College Board, “Total Group Profile Report: 2009 College-Bound Seniors” (New York: The College Board, 2009); available online at http://professionals.collegeboard.com/profdownload/cbs-2009-national-TOTAL-GROUP.pdf.


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