SAT scores for the class of 2014 averaged a 497 in reading, 513 in math and 487 in writing -- about the same as the last few years, according to a report released Tuesday by the College Board, the administrator of the notorious college entrance exam.
"Flat and stagnant would be the words that we would use," said Cyndie Schmeiser, the College Board's chief of assessment.
The College Board, which this year announced plans for a major SAT redesign, points to the test scores as a sign that American education needs renewed rigor and resources. "Offering the same old test in the face of lasting problems is just not good enough," said David Coleman, president of the College Board.
The class of 2014 included 1.67 million students who took the SAT, an increase from 1.65 million who took it the previous year. This year's test-takers included 793,986 minorities, compared with 762,511 the previous year. Overall, 42.6 percent scored high enough to reach the College Board's "College and Career Readiness Benchmark" -- a number a College Board press release said has "been virtually unchanged over the last several years."
Achievement gaps among ethnic groups remain staggering: 15.8 percent African-American SAT-takers met the college readiness benchmark, compared with 23.4 percent of Hispanics and 33.5 percent of Native Americans.
"For a long time, institutions like ours have been reporting that too many students aren't ready for college and career," Coleman said. "It's time to do something about it."
The College Board says its redesign of the SAT will help encourage deeper engagement with material in school -- rather than merely test preparation. The new test will be shorter, the essay will be optional, vocabulary will focus more on academic words and multiple choice questions will have four possible answers, rather than five. The changes begin in 2016.
The release of the test results is changed this year. The College Board administers Advanced Placement exams, which allow students to accrue college credits, as well as a practice version of the SAT called PSAT/NMSQT. The College Board has in the past released AP results in the spring. But this year, the organization released results of all three exams together -- an effort, they say, to help students on the cusp of college readiness overcome barriers preventing them from enrolling.
The percentage of America's high school juniors and seniors who scored a three or higher on at least one AP exam almost doubled from 7.6 percent in 2004 to 13.2 percent in May 2014. For this year's AP exam, 1.48 million high school juniors and seniors took the test. The participation rate was an increase over the previous year of 7 percent for minority and low-income students.
"If we are going to move the numbers that we are describing in this report, it will take these programs interacting," Coleman said. By connecting the three tests, the College Board determined that of the 609,000 students who took the PSAT in the fall of their junior year and the SAT in their senior year, 29,000, or 5 percent, "were on target" for college readiness in their junior year, but fell behind by the time the SAT rolled around. The new system also identified 9 percent of test-takers deemed to be within one year of college readiness.
The College Board used the PSAT to identify students prepared for AP course work. The calculations for the class of 2014 found that 685,577 PSAT-takers had AP potential, but 39 percent did not take the AP test for which they showed promise. "These are missed opportunities that we must address," the College Board writes.
The College Board frames this three-part test process as a "Readiness and Success System." Some experts called it well-intentioned marketing.
"They're making a good social point and it's too bad that it's couched in marketing," said Jeff Strohl, research director for Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. "If they could make the same point that there's a large number of disadvantaged youth in America who could do better with counseling and have higher degrees of academic readiness with social expenditures, that's a really good statement to make. If it's the same statement made with a copyright on it, that doesn't sound the same. It's like, social justice -- trademarked." (Strohl used to work for Educational Testing Services, a nonprofit company that designs questions for assessments such as the SAT.)
Mark Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes of Research who previously directed the U.S. Education Department's research arm, also was skeptical of the College Board message. "They're not making any causal claims, but they're really coming close," he said.