New SAT test hits bumps in its first year

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Members of the high school class of 2006 have learned the road to college has a few rough spots.

They're the first ones to take the new and expanded version of the SAT college entrance exam. In March, they learned some of their tests had been scored incorrectly. Then they learned some of the top colleges in the country had some of the lowest acceptance rates.

And now the College Board, which gives the SAT, says the preliminary figures show the national average for the SAT combined scores in math and critical reading are down a total of 4 to 5 points from last year.

The College Board's final report is due out in August, but, in response to questions raised by some colleges, James Montoya, College Board vice president for higher education, confirmed the nationwide drop and said it still is valid to compare scores from this year with prior years.

The drop was reported by USA Today last week.

College Board spokeswoman Caren Scoropanos said, "It is not unprecedented a decrease or increase of this magnitude would occur."

For example, average annual scores dropped by 16 points in 1975.

But, she said, the College Board is trying to figure out what caused this one.

She said one possibility is that students are not taking the SAT as many times. The average student who re-tests increases his or her score by 30 points combined across the math and critical reading sections.

In the past, high school seniors took the SAT an average of 1.7 times, but the figure for this test is expected to be lower.

One reason may be its cost, which grew from $28.50 to $41.50.

The new test, which has been given since March 2005, also is longer. It takes 3 hours 45 minutes to complete, an increase of 45 minutes.

And while the old test had two sections, the new one has a third, writing, which many colleges did not count in their decisions this year. The other two sections are math and critical reading, which previously was called verbal. Each section is worth 800 points.

Ms. Scoropanos said College Board officials don't think test fatigue is responsible, but are looking into whether cost plays a role. She said they are discussing a number of possibilities, including whether the test should be broken into sections.

"We want to make sure we have the best possible test for students, teachers, guidance and admissions counselors," she said.

She said the College Board has heard from only a "handful" of schools with increased or decreased scores for incoming freshmen.

One of the biggest drops was 28 points for applicants and 22 points for admitted students at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Lebanon County.

Closer to home, results are mixed or incomplete.

Officials at the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University said they hadn't tallied the results yet because the admissions process isn't complete.

At Duquesne University, Paul-James Cukanna, executive director of admissions and enrollment research, said that the average SAT score of entering freshman dropped two points for the critical reading and math sections combined. He said the scores had been increasing for the past five years.

He thinks the fact that some of Duquesne's science and health programs -- such as pharmacy -- attract students with high scores may have prevented the university's average from falling by more points.

Carlow University Provost Gary Smith said it has been a peculiar year because some students had lower SAT scores than would have been expected based on their class ranks and grade-point averages. For some, the difference between their SAT scores and what might be expected is as much as 20 points.

"It gives you some concern," he said.

These same students score higher on Carlow's placement tests than would be predicted by their SAT scores.

"It's a quirk," he said. "I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a trend."

At Chatham College, Michael Poll, vice president of admissions, said the average combined SAT scores for math and critical reading for those who have made a deposit for freshman year are up by about 28 points. He said the increase fits with the grade point averages and class ranks, which also are up.

Chatham doesn't require the SAT, but about 95 percent of applicants provide it anyway.


Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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