The College Board’s annual “SAT Report on College and Career Readiness” is interesting reading for teachers and other education professionals. It’s no surprise to find that the report praises the College Board (its author) for its test’s fairness to all students, generous charity in granting fee waivers to low-income students, and awesome validity in predicting college success. In between the self-laudatory puffery, though, some striking trends can be gleaned.
According to the report, among SAT takers in the class of 2012, 45 percent were minority students, the largest minority contingent ever, and a huge jump up from even recent years. This percent was almost the same for public as private schools, suggesting minorities are proportionately represented in all kinds of schooling in this country, a positive trend, on the face of it.
As the number of minority students taking the test has sharply risen, so has the percent of test takers for whom English was not exclusively their first language, now 28 percent. And a huge 36 percent of all SAT takers reported that their parents’ highest educational achievement was a high school diploma or lower.
So, clearly, more and more students from an ever-widening range of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds are taking the SAT, thereby indicating their goal of attending college. A generation ago, students’ horizons were much more likely to be defined by their parents’ highest academic achievements. Today, a high percent of students see college as the next step after high school.
Since the increase in student participation in the SAT – 1.66 million in the class of 2012 according to the College Board – reflects such a huge leap in diversity of background, one might wonder how that change might be reflected in the scores. With so many test takers coming from homes where resources for test prep are not easy to come by or English is not the first language spoken, wouldn’t the overall test scores show a decline? As noted by Jennifer Karan, Executive Director of the SAT Program, in a statement on the report, interpretation of this data really is a task for those with a “deep and abiding interest in psychometrics.” However, it is interesting to note that despite the rapidly evolving demographics of the test taking class, scores have remained relatively stable, with Math quite constant for at least the past five years. Critical Reading and Writing scores have dropped a few points, but still a shallow decline in the context of the vastly increasing range and number of students for whom this test is now accessibie and within real aspirations.
One statistic from the report does raise concern: the high percentage of students who did not achieve the “SAT Benchmark.” This benchmark, as explained on page 22 in the downloadable report, measures the probability of a student’s achieving a first year college GPA of B- or higher, based on the student’s SAT scores in high school. As documented in the report, there is a strong correlation between SAT success and college success (which college admissions officers must also believe is true since they rely heavily on these test scores in admissions decisions). Among the class of 2012, only 43 percent achieved the benchmark. So, it follows that over half the students did not do well in their freshman year of college, and that is presumably related to the statistics on page 10 of the same report, showing the much lower college retention rates of students with low SAT scores.
All these statistics and more in this report raise as many questions as they purport to answer, and some of the questions are big: Should so many students be taking the SAT and aiming for college? Are more students also preparing for careers that do not require college testing? Does the SAT measure the right aptitudes and achievements for the skills students need to be successful in college and beyond? What should be done to help and guide the students who are NOT achieving SAT Benchmark results in college – a majority of the test takers? These are big, controversial and thought-provoking questions, indeed. The first step to grappling with them is to study the data.
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About the author: Karen Berlin Ishii, a graduate of Brown University, has 25+ years of experience as a teacher and test prep tutor. Karen teaches students in New York and internationally via Skype for the PSAT, SAT, ACT, ISEE, SSAT, SHSAT, IELTS, TOEFL and GRE, and also offers tutoring in reading, writing and math. Learn more about Karen at karenberlinishii.com.