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Average SAT Scores in Reading, Math Show Significant Decline

By Karen W. Arenson

The average score on the reading and math portions of the newly expanded SAT showed the most significant decline in 31 years, according to a report released on Tuesday by the College Board on the performance of the high school class of 2006.

The drop confirmed earlier reports from college officials that they were seeing lower scores from applicants. The average score on the critical reading portion of the SAT, formerly known as the verbal test, fell 5 points, to 503, out of a maximum possible score of 800. The average math score fell 2 points, to 518. Together they amounted to the lowest combined score since 2002.

Officials of the College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the SAT, dismissed the suggestion by numerous high school guidance counselors that students were getting tired out by the new three-part test which now runs three and three-quarters hours, rather than three.

“Fatigue is not a factor,” Wayne Camara, vice president for research and analysis at the College Board, said at a news conference. “We are not trying to say that students are not tired. But it is not affecting, on the whole, student performance.”

Instead, the officials attributed the drop to a decline in the number of students who took the exam more than once. The board said 47 percent of this year’s students took the test only once, up from 44 percent last year. The number taking the test three times fell to less than 13 percent from nearly 15 percent.

Students typically gain 14 points a section when they take the test a second time, and another 10 or 11 points a section on the third try.

The SAT writing test includes a 25-minute essay, which counts for a quarter of the writing score, and 49 multiple-choice questions on grammar and usage, which count for the rest. The average score on the writing section was 497 out of a possible 800, the board said.

Girls performed better than boys on this section of the exam, averaging 502 versus 491 for boys. That partially offset girls’ lower scores on math and reading, but did not close the long-standing score gap between boys and girls.

Gaston Caperton, the president of the College Board, pointed out that the decline in scores represented less than one half of a test question in reading and one-fifth of one test question in math. Still it was the largest year to year decline since 1975 and officials had concerns about the overall performance of American students.