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Most Students Are Unprepared for College, SAT Results Show

By Justin Doubleday, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Less than half of the students who took the SAT in 2013 are ready to succeed in postsecondary education, according to a report released on Thursday by the College Board, which owns the SAT.

Only 43 percent of the test takers this year met or exceeded the benchmark score of 1550 out of a possible 2400, the same proportion as last year.

Those who reach that number, according to the College Board, have a greater chance of attaining a B-minus average or higher during their first year of college and persisting to graduation. The mean score for 2013 was 1498.

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, College Board officials said the number of students reaching the benchmark score had remained virtually unchanged over the last five years. "We are just not moving the needle as aggressively as it needs to be moved," said Cyndie Schmeiser, chief of assessments.

For more test takers to reach a score of 1550, rigorous coursework will have to become more widely accessible, said David Coleman, president of the College Board.

Mr. Coleman plans to better align the SAT with the Common Core State Standards, which he helped write. They prescribe what students should learn, in English and mathematics, from kindergarten through high school. His proposal to make the essay portion of the SAT more analytical has been met by a mix of applause and apprehension.

The SAT results show that more must be done in elementary and secondary schools to prepare students for college and careers, Mr. Coleman said on Tuesday: "We at the College Board consider this a call for action."

Critics of standardized tests contend that the examinations are unfair to students from low-income backgrounds. Many of those students, they argue, don't have the same access to advanced classes and test-preparation materials as their more-affluent peers do.

The College Board's report showed that test takers in the lowest income percentile, whose families make less than $20,000 per year, averaged a score of 1326, well below the mean. The average score for students from families who make more than $100,000 was 1619.

Raising Expectations

Mr. Coleman repeatedly described the need to get more high-school students into honors and Advanced Placement courses. Nearly 80 percent of the students who met the benchmark score had taken AP or honors courses.

"It is not enough for the College Board to observe and report," he said. "We are working to put students on the path toward college and career readiness through initiatives that expand access to rigorous coursework."

He also said the PSAT, another College Board test, is a good way for high-school students to determine whether they are ready for advanced courses and eventually the SAT. "One thing that's so striking," he said, "is how students will often be surprised that they can do harder work than they thought they could."

Although SAT scores have remained largely flat for the past few years, College Board officials noted that 46 percent of the 1.66 million test takers were from minority groups, up a percentage point from 2012. The percentage of African-American and Hispanic students who reached the benchmark score increased slightly from last year as well. It's not enough, said Ms. Schmeiser, but "it is positive, it is encouraging."

Mr. Coleman said the College Board would work to make advanced courses readily available at schools that serve large minority communities. The Department of Education has also participated in that effort. In September its Office for Civil Rights reached an agreement with an Alabama school district intended to give black students the same access to AP courses that white students have.

Language, too, can be a barrier for some SAT takers. Students who reported learning "English and another language" or "another language" first tested as high in math as their English-first peers—or higher than them. But on the critical-reading and writing sections, the average scores for that first group of students—who made up nearly 30 percent of those tested—were notably lower than for those who had learned only English first.

Mr. Coleman said his first public event after becoming president of the College Board, in 2012, was a panel discussion with experts in English-language learning to explore how students could be exposed to more complex texts and could improve their critical reading and writing.

"Those course skills are crucial for success in the future," he said.

As for forthcoming changes in the SAT, including the essay portion of the test, Mr. Coleman said to expect details in January.

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