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The real reason SAT scores are falling

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The results for last year's SAT test-takers are in, and they're not good: the lowest on record in the last decade.

The declines are slight. Scores are down only 7 points, on a scale of 2400, since last year. Still, just 42 percent of students did well enough to score as college-ready in reading, writing, and math. The share of students hitting that benchmark has remained basically unchanged for five years.

That sounds bad — but it's not time to panic. There's a hidden factor here: Different students are taking the SAT than in the past. The pool of test takers is more likely to include poor and nonwhite students than before. Since SAT scores correlate strongly with race and family income, it's not a surprise that scores are now ticking down slightly. And that doesn't alter the fact that more students taking the test is, broadly speaking, good news.

Students taking the SAT are getting a lot more diverse

In 2010, 54 percent of students who took the SAT were white; 74 percent had learned English as a first language. Most came from families making far above the median household income, and only 11 percent came from families making less than $20,000 per year.

Since then, SAT-takers have become more racially diverse, largely because a greater share of test-takers are Hispanic now than in the past. The share of students from poor families and those who learned English as a second language have increased.

This year, just 47 percent of SAT-takers were white, and 68 percent learned English as a first language. The share of students who get fee waivers because their families can't afford to pay the $55 cost of the test has increased, too, from 21 percent in 2011 to 25 percent this year.

SAT scores correlate strongly with race and family income — so strongly that it's been called the "Student Affluence Test." That's partly because wealthy families can afford test preparation or for their children to take the tests many times. Some critics argue it's also due to biased questions on the test itself. But it's also the result of piled-up advantages whiter, wealthier students have accrued long before they sit for the standardized test.

So as the pool of test-takers has gotten more diverse and poorer than in the past, the average score has fallen slightly from year to year. To some extent, that's to be expected.

This isn't good news, but it's not terrible either

To be clear, there's nothing particularly encouraging in the SAT score report. Scores have dropped very slightly even among students with the most advantages. Across the board, students are doing a little worse than they did in 2010 – including those from families making more than $100,000 per year, those who have parents with graduate degrees, and those who have an A+ average in their regular classes. Those students are doing better than anyone else, but they're still performing a point or two below where they were five years ago.

The declines among those groups, though, are very small. And a broader pool might be affecting these results as well. More schools, districts, and states are requiring all students to take the tests, so students who might have opted out in the past because they thought they'd do poorly are now included.

In general, the trade-off of a slight decrease in scores for a more diverse pool of test-takers might not be such a bad thing.

First, some students from low-income families do very well, even though their results are obscured by the averages. There's a national effort to reach out to these students, because they typically don't apply to selective colleges. Students who take the SAT and get a fee waiver also get application fees for up to four colleges waived. That means this year, 25 percent of students will get to apply to several colleges for free.

Second, the SAT has long been seen as a test for the elite: It's more often required by more selective colleges, and the students who take it typically come from families who make far more than the median household income. But students in American public schools are getting poorer and more diverse. SAT-takers are starting to look more like students in the country as a whole. In that context, slightly lower scores aren't surprising.

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