Is student fatigue to blame for drop in SAT scores?

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A small but noticeable decline in scores on the newly expanded SAT exam has some wondering whether fatigue is affecting students’ performance – an issue that could prompt the College Board to adjust the test.

Possible changes to how the SAT is administered were the primary topic at a meeting Friday in New York City of the College Board’s SAT advisory committee. Some guidance counselors have called for the College Board, which owns the exam, to let students take separate sections on separate days.

The new SAT, which debuted in March 2005, now officially lasts three hours, 45 minutes, but takes longer if instructions and breaks are included.

“Right now, it’s longer than the GRE, the LSAT and the GMATs, and those are all taken by college students or college graduates,” said Brad MacGowan, a guidance counselor at Newton North High School in Massachusetts, who has asked the College Board to let students split up the exam.

Counting tests taken through January, scores for the upcoming college freshman class are down between four and five points on the combined math and critical reading sections, according to the College Board, which owns the SAT. Full-year numbers are expected to show a “small additional decline.”

The change, over two sections totaling 1,600 points, is not unprecedented; scores have changed as much as eight points per year over the last quarter century.

But it would be the biggest jump in at least a decade, and sticks out because it coincides with changes made to the test. The College Board added a writing section and made other adjustments to the new test, which debuted in March 2005, but insisted scores would remain comparable.

Some colleges, however, are reporting substantial declines. The University of California system saw a 15-point drop, while La Salle University in Philadelphia saw a 12-point drop – even as their applicants looked better than last year’s group by other measures.

“I’ve never seen better (students’) records, and lower scores. Never seen it in 36 years,” said Bob Voss, La Salle dean of admission.

There may be other explanations.

Typically, students’ scores rise a combined 30 points on the math and critical reading sections on a second try. While more students are taking the SAT, fewer are taking it multiple times, said College Board spokeswoman Chiara Coletti. The price of the test has risen from $28.50 to $41.50, though fees are sometimes waived.

Jeff Olson, executive director of research at test-prep company Kaplan, said some high-achieving students may have decided to stick with the good scores they got on the old SAT. But he said fatigue could have played a role, too.

When Kaplan surveyed 2,000 test-takers in March 2005, 37 percent said they feared the length would affect their scores. Also, nearly half of test-takers surveyed after last June’s test reported they hadn’t been allowed to snack during breaks, Olson said.

More students were able to snack at subsequent tests, after the College Board changed its guidelines. But some students taking the SAT before that change may have simply run out of gas.

The College Board says it surveyed research on test-taking fatigue and, before debuting the new SAT, conducted its own study, which concluded scores would not be affected by the additional 45 minutes.

But MacGowan said that simply didn’t ring true to his experience with 16- and 17-year-olds. He re-examined the research cited by the College Board and wrote up his findings in a paper posted on his Web site. Some of the research the College Board relied on dated back as far as 1921, and often involved older students and shorter tests. The College Board’s own study included just 97 students, divided into three groups.

“The fatigue studies were nowhere close to conclusive,” he said.

Coletti said College Board was conducting a more extensive study on fatigue, based on actual SAT exams. But she said the College Board believes it is unlikely fatigue is a factor.

The SAT committee reached no decisions Friday, but called for further analysis of potential changes and agreed to meet again this summer, ahead of its next scheduled meeting in six months.

“There really are quite a few things on the table that could be explored in terms of making the test more flexible,” Coletti said. “But we don’t do anything overnight.”

The latest debate is unrelated to the recently revealed scoring errors on last October’s SAT, but it could hurt the College Board’s effort to restore its credibility after that episode. Colleges depend on SAT scores being comparable year to year because it can play a major role in determining financial aid packages, and sudden jolts can upset those formulas.

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