The local newspaper here in Charlotte was aghast that SAT scores (a test used to help determine college admissions in the US) fell in North Carolina this year, even though the article goes on to point out that nationwide the scores dropped even more.
So what’s up? Are schools letting the kids down? Is the new test harder (this year a writing section was added, though the format of the remainder of the test remains the same, and the writing section isn’t included in comparisons)? The College Board, which administers the tests, claims that the difference can’t be attributed to the longer tests — students performed equally well (or badly, depending on your perspective) at the beginning and the end of the test sessions.
One explanation may be that students didn’t retake the test as frequently as they had during previous years. The Observer article claims this may be due to increased testing fees. But with kids spending hundreds of dollars on iPods, PSPs, and the rest of the latest electronic gizmos (not to mention SAT-prep courses), is a lousy 13 bucks going to prevent them from retaking the test? I think the answer may be elsewhere.
I also doubt this year’s loss can be attributed to recent research on decreasing general intelligence. This sort of research requires decade-long intervals to find significant effects; with the SAT, the decline was noticed in the space of a single year.
What’s more, scores on the SAT’s rival test, the ACT, held steady this year. The simplest explanation for the discrepancy must lie in the difference between the SAT and the ACT. The primary change implemented in the SAT this year was the addition of the new writing section, which extended the length of the test by nearly an hour. Though the ACT has a writing section (and did last year as well), this section is optional, while the SAT’s is mandatory.
So if the College Board’s claim that the extended length of the test didn’t cause the decrease is true, and if writing scores aren’t included in the comparison, what’s left? I’d say it’s how students prepared for the SAT this year. Now that the writing section is required, students had to divide SAT prep time between the traditional verbal and math sections and the new writing section. Further, since the new section was so — well, new — they may have spent disproportionately more time trying to master the art of writing a 5-paragraph essay in 25 minutes. So, comparatively less time would have been spent going over algebra, reading comprehension, and the other skills the SAT purports to test.
What’s more, the uncertainty about the writing section may have also convinced plenty of students not to retake the test. You might be convinced that you can make fewer arithmetic errors the second time around, but can you write better? That’s a dicier question. I’d say fewer students retook the test because they thought it’d be safer just to let the original score ride.
So that’s my guess as to why the scores went down. What’ll happen next year? I suspect scores may come up a bit, since next year’s students will have had more of a chance to wrap their heads around the writing section. You heard it here first!