New SATs produce decline in scores

More high school seniors in state take new test

results drop 11 points

August 30, 2006|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun reporter

In Maryland and across the country, high school seniors got much lower scores on their SATs last academic year - perhaps, officials say, because the new test is longer and fewer students were willing to take it twice to improve their results.

The average combined verbal and math score went down 7 points nationwide - the largest single-year drop in three decades - and 11 points in Maryland. The state's decline is attributed to a significant increase in the number of students, especially from Baltimore, who were enrolled in less-rigorous courses when they took the test.

Last year's seniors were the first to take an expanded test with a writing section and tougher math questions.

Some students nationwide apparently rushed to take the old SAT before March 2005 and didn't try again, according to officials of the College Board, which administers the test. Others delayed taking the new test with the writing exam until October of their senior year and didn't have time for a second try before college applications were due. Taking the test twice increases scores an average of 30 points.

The new test is also much longer - three hours and 45 minutes. There was a fear that students would grow weary and not do as well as on the older, three-hour version. The College Board said that turned out not to be a factor, according to their studies, though many students say they felt overwhelmed.

Jeff Lasser, a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park, took the new test twice while he was a senior at Atholton High School in Columbia. "In general, people were not prepared to take that entire test in one sitting," said Lasser, who said bringing snacks is key.

The test "was horrendously long," said Sarah Splaine of Columbia. "That extra hour of writing an essay didn't help. You can only concentrate on something for so long." Splaine took the old SATs in 2004 and then took the longer version last year in hopes of improving her math score.

In Maryland, the reason given for much of the decline - the average math score was 509, verbal was 503 and the new writing was 499 - was different from the nation as a whole. State officials said the results might have been skewed downward in part by the large increase in seniors from Baltimore who took the test.

More take test

About 75 percent of seniors in city schools took the SAT, up 21 percentage points from 2005. The city for the first time paid the fee for any student who wanted to take the test.

Maryland and Virginia were singled out for praise by the College Board for their push to get more students to take the exam, particularly from urban areas. Educators across the nation believe taking the test gives students a better chance at getting into competitive colleges.

But the increase means more students who have not taken geometry or other advanced courses are taking the SAT, said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "You have to ask, are these students prepared to take the test?" she said. Baltimore's scores were 383 for verbal, 376 for math and 389 for writing.

Wayne Camara, vice president of research for the College Board, said because of the city increase Maryland now has a large percentage - about 20 percent - of test-takers who have not taken what is considered a rigorous course of study. If those less-prepared students are separated out, he said, the scores in Maryland actually rose 1 point in math and decreased 2 points in reading.

Maryland differed from the nation in another key area - math. While Maryland's math scores are weaker than the national average, the state's verbal and writing scores are about average.

"As a nation, across all racial and ethnic groups, critical reading and writing are lagging behind the progress we are making in math," said Camara, pointing to the need across the nation to concentrate on the teaching of writing and English.

In Baltimore County, the average verbal score dropped 12 points to 497, and the average math score dropped 10 points to 506, the largest decrease in six years. The writing score was 495, four points below the state average. Baltimore County's participation rate increased this year slightly to 56.4 percent. More than 4,300 seniors took the test.

"This still needs some analysis and review, so it's hard to compare at this point," said Brice Freeman, a county schools spokesman.

Howard County also had an overall decline in SAT scores, but the county saw increases among some minority groups. For example, Hispanic students increased 17 points in reading to 508 and by one point to 509 in mathematics.

"It is too early to decide what made the difference," said Howard County spokeswoman Patti Caplan. "But we can assume that the supports we have put in place for our various student groups are beginning to show results."

Overall, Howard County students dropped by 13 points in reading from a year ago to 539 and by 2 points in math to 559.

Performance dips

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