Fatigue May Be Reason for Dip in SAT Scores

At three hours, 45 minutes, the newly expanded SAT exam can be a grueling marathon of essays and multiple-choice bubbles, many high schoolers say. Now, with preliminary figures showing a small but noticeable drop in scores this year, some experts wonder if student fatigue is to blame.

That could further pressure the College Board to let students take different sections of the test on separate days — an issue on the agenda at the nonprofit's SAT committee meeting that was underway Friday in New York.

"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 1600 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, whileLa 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 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.

"Maybe it's all a fluke, but we're going to make adjustments for next year, I'll tell you that," said La Salle's Voss.

Bob Schaeffer of the group FairTest, a longtime College Board critic, said it's unclear whether fatigue played a role, but said this "may be another piece of fallout from the fact that they rushed the test into the marketplace" after the University of California system threatened to abandon the SAT unless changes were made.

Bob Sweeney, a guidance counselor at Mamaroneck High School in New York, said his students reported being exhausted by the test. "I hope this will give (the College Board) some pause to say `Maybe this needs to be fixed," he said.