Humanities Indicators
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K-12 Education  >  National Measures of Achievement
 
Performance on SAT Verbal/Critical Reading and Writing Exams
(Updated September 2016)

Although controversy over the SAT persists on a number of fronts, the “critical reading” portion of the test (called the “verbal” portion until 2005) is a valuable measure of college-bound seniors’ linguistic skills because the test has been administered for several decades and thus permits comparison over an extended period of time. The relatively new writing portion of the test (added in 2006) is intended to measure another vital humanistic skill. Average scores on both measures have been trending downward in recent years.

Findings and Trends

  • In 2015, the average score on the SAT verbal test fell to a historic low of 495 (slightly below the 497 recorded in 2014) (Indicator I-5a; scores have been adjusted to take into account a 1995 change in the scoring system).
  • The mean score for the relatively new SAT writing test scores hit its lowest point in 2015. In the nine years since the test was first administered in 2006, the score has declined thirteen points.
  • The mean SAT verbal score for all college-bound seniors fell sharply from 1967 through the early 1980s, followed by a leveling off, with the mean score through 2010 varying within a relatively narrow band between the upper 490s and 510.[1] Only in the most recent five years—from 2011 to 2015—did the mean SAT verbal score fall below 499. The College Board, which administers the SAT, has attributed at least some of the recent drop to “the fact that more lower-income students with less access to high-quality education are taking the test.”[2]
  • As with the mean SAT verbal score, the average SAT math score also declined over the course of the 1970s. But unlike the verbal average, which has remained fairly constant since the early 1980s, the mean score on the math exam rose steadily from 1981 (its lowest point) until 2005. Like the verbal average, the math average dipped in the late 2000s, lingering at a somewhat reduced level (513 to 515) through 2014, before declining further to 511 in 2015—the lowest average score since 1997.
  • From 1967 through the late 1980s, the SAT math average was consistently lower than that for the verbal exam. But with the steady improvement of the math average and the stagnation of the verbal average, American students were earning somewhat higher math than verbal scores by 1990. The gap has grown since then, reaching its widest in 2012 and 2013, when the mean math score was 18 points higher than the mean verbal score. The gap narrowed slightly, to 16 points, in 2014 and 2015, but this is still a profound reversal from 1967, when the average verbal score exceeded the math average by 27 points.
  • Male students’ average verbal SAT score has been consistently higher than that of female students since the early 1970s (Indicator I-5b). Initially the gap was small, but the disparity grew, and during the 1980s the gender gap in verbal scores ranged from 10 to 13 points. The gap has narrowed since then, with the average score of female examinees coming within four points of the male average in 2015.
  • From 2006 to 2015, female students scored, on average, more than ten points higher each year than their male counterparts on the SAT writing test (recording an average of 490 versus 478 in 2015).
  • The difference in mean verbal SAT score between whites and most racial/ethnic minority groups is more pronounced than the gap between the genders (Indicator I-5c). The gap between the scores for African Americans and whites was particularly large throughout the time period, with white examinees scoring 98 points higher, on average, in 2015.
  • Mean verbal scores rose over the 1995–2015 time period for students of Puerto Rican ancestry but not for students of Mexican descent or for other Latino/Hispanic students. African American students’ performance in 2015 was similar to that of two decades earlier. In contrast, the cohort of students who self-identified as Asian, Asian American, or Pacific Islander made substantial gains. In 2015, these students scored 33 points higher, on average, than the cohort of test takers in 1995. White students, however, received the highest average scores over the two decades.
  • The mean score for all college-bound seniors taking the new SAT writing test in 2006 was 497 (Indicator I-5d). Nine years later, the average writing score for the entire college-bound group was lower (by 13 points), as was the average for every racial/ethnic group with the exception of students of Asian or Pacific Islander descent. The average score for test-takers identified as Asian, Asian American, or Pacific Islander was 19 points higher in 2015 than in 2006. The average score for these students was higher than that of white students. Every other minority group’s average was lower than that for white students, with the magnitude of the performance gap between each of these groups and whites being similar to that for the verbal exam.
I-5a: Mean SAT Verbal/Critical Reading Score of College-Bound Seniors Compared with Mean Math and Writing Scores, 1967–2015*

* Scores for each year are for the students graduating in that year who participated in the SAT program. Students are counted only once, no matter how often they tested, and only their latest scores are tabulated. Cohort data presented through 2006 include students who tested through March of the senior year, while cohort data from 2007 to present include students who tested through June. Please see “About the Data” for additional information about changes in the examinee population on which the statistics presented here are based.

Source: The College Board, “10-Year Trend in SAT® Scores Indicates Increased Emphasis on Math Is Yielding Results—Reading and Writing Are Causes for Concern,” press release, October 24, 2002; and The College Board, Total Group Profile Report: 2015 College-Bound Seniors (New York: The College Board, 2015).

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I-5b: Mean SAT Verbal/Critical Reading Score and Mean SAT Writing Score of College-Bound Seniors, by Gender, 1967–2015*

* Scores for each year are for the students graduating in that year who participated in the SAT program. Students are counted only once, no matter how often they tested, and only their latest scores are tabulated. Cohort data presented through 2006 include students who tested through March of the senior year, while cohort data from 2007 to present include students who tested through June. Please see “About the Data” for additional information about changes in the examinee population on which the statistics presented here are based.

Source: The College Board, “10-Year Trend in SAT® Scores Indicates Increased Emphasis on Math Is Yielding Results—Reading and Writing Are Causes for Concern,” press release, October 24, 2002; and The College Board, Total Group Profile Report: 2015 College-Bound Seniors (New York: The College Board, 2015).

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I-5c: Mean SAT Verbal/Critical Reading Score of College-Bound Seniors, by Race/Ethnicity, 1995–2015*

* Scores for each year are for the students graduating in that year who participated in the SAT program. Students are counted only once, no matter how often they tested, and only their latest scores are included in the calculations underlying the values depicted in the graph. Cohort data presented through 2006 include students who tested through March of the senior year, while cohort data from 2007 to present include students who tested through June. Please see “About the Data” for additional information about changes in the examinee population on which the statistics presented here are based.

Source: The College Board, “Table 7: SAT Score Gains—Especially in Math—for Most Racial/Ethnic Groups between 1995 and 2005,” http://www.collegeboard.com/prod_downloads/about/news_info/cbsenior/yr2005/table7-SAT-score-gains.pdf (accessed 8/12/2016); U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, “Table 226.10: SAT Mean Scores of College-Bound Seniors, by Race/Ethnicity: Selected Years, 1986–87 through 2013–14,” in Digest of Education Statistics, 2014 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 2015); and The College Board, Total Group Profile Report: 2015 College-Bound Seniors (New York: The College Board, 2015).

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I-5d: Mean SAT Writing Score of College-Bound Seniors, by Race/Ethnicity, 2006–2014*

* Scores for each year are for the students graduating in that year who participated in the SAT program. Students are counted only once, no matter how often they tested, and only their latest scores are included in the calculations underlying the values depicted in the graph. Cohort data presented through 2006 include students who tested through March of the senior year, while cohort data from 2007 to present include students who tested through June. Please see “About the Data” for additional information about changes in the examinee population on which the statistics presented here are based.

Source: The College Board, “Table 7: SAT Score Gains—Especially in Math—for Most Racial/Ethnic Groups between 1995 and 2005,” http://www.collegeboard.com/prod_downloads/about/news_info/cbsenior/yr2005/table7-SAT-score-gains.pdf (accessed 8/12/2016); U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, “Table 226.10: SAT Mean Scores of College-Bound Seniors, by Race/Ethnicity: Selected Years, 1986–87 through 2013–14,” in Digest of Education Statistics, 2014 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 2015); and The College Board, Total Group Profile Report: 2015 College-Bound Seniors (New York: The College Board, 2015).

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Endnotes

[1] A flurry of research about college-bound seniors during the late 1970s and early 1980s sought to explain the decline but arrived at no consensus. The decline seems to be attributable, at least in part, to the increasing accessibility of higher education and the greater diversity of high school graduates taking the SAT. Proposed explanations for the remainder of the drop include the changing design of the SAT, simplification of textbook language, and primary- and secondary-school teachers’ decreasing emphasis on Standard English.
[2] See Janet Lorin, “SAT Reading, Writing Test Scores Drop to Lowest Levels,”Bloomberg Business,September 24, 2012. See also College Board, “SAT Report: Only 43 Percent of 2012 College-Bound Seniors Are College Ready,” press release, September 24, 2012.