Is the News About SAT Scores Really That Good?

Published December 1, 2000

While the College Board took a rosy view of the latest scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), independent experts on testing were far more critical.

The College Board’s selective use of testing data gives Americans an unrealistic view of the nation’s limited educational progress, they warned. In fact, the Board appears to have ignored its own warning against misusing SAT scores for mass comparisons.

“SAT Math Scores for 2000 Hit 30-Year High; Reflect Gains for American Education” declared the headline on the College Board’s news release about this year’s results from the test, taken by 1.26 million high school students who aspire to college. Many newspapers reported the results with a similar good-news spin.

The average SAT math score, on a scale of 200 to 800, was 514, a three-point gain over the previous year. College Board officials attributed the gain to students getting better math and science preparation in high school.

Meanwhile, by pointing to increases in the numbers of foreign-born students taking the college entrance test, the Princeton, N.J.-based College Board managed to find good news as well in the SAT verbal score, which remained stagnant at 505 for the fifth consecutive year.

“The rise in math scores is cause for cautious optimism, as is the stability of verbal scores,” asserted College Board president Gaston Caperton, former governor of West Virginia. “Verbal scores are holding steady even though more of today’s college-bound high school students than ever before have English as their second language or have parents who aren’t native English speakers.”

While the College Board went back to 1970 to tout a “30-year high” for math SAT scores–amounting to a bare two-point gain from the 512 average that year–it did not engage in the same exercise for the verbal SAT, which has remained unchanged for five years. Had it done so, the Board would have had to report a 32-point drop over 30 years–from 537 in 1970 to 505 in 2000.

George W. Cunningham, professor of education at the University of Louisville, was critical of the selective use of testing data to reach debatable conclusions. Concerning the claim scores are at a 30-year high after increasing three points last year, Cunningham pointed out that math scores dropped from 1998 to 1999 and are up just two from 1998.

“While the scores are at an all-time high for the last 30 years, if you go back one more year, they are down three points because in 1969 they were at 517,” Cunningham explained. “To pick arbitrary points across the years and argue they are meaningful is misleading. You could just as easily talk about the decline since the late 1960s.”

Calling the College Board’s use of selective data to support current math policies “clearly inappropriate,” Cunningham noted the Board’s Web site ( carries numerous warnings against misusing SAT scores for mass comparisons. One such warning states that while SAT scores are useful for making decisions about individual students and their academic preparation, use of the scores “in aggregate form as a single measure to rank or rate teachers, educational institutions, districts, or states is invalid because it does not include all students. In being incomplete, this use is inherently unfair.”

Yet the College Board itself has used the data selectively to make judgments about education quality nationally, even though rates of SAT participation vary widely among the states, from 44 percent to as low as 8 or 9 percent. And selective participation distorts the picture another way, according to Cunningham.

“Not every student takes the test, but those that do are the best students, because these are the students going to college,” he said. “Their results tell us nothing about the students about which there is the most concern–those who are at the lower end of the distribution.”

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia. His e-mail address is [email protected].