Scores on the critical reading portion of the SAT college entrance exam fell three points to their lowest level on record last year, and combined reading and math scores reached their lowest point since 1995.
The College Board, which released the scores Wednesday, said the results reflect the record number of students from the high school class of 2011 who took the exam and the growing diversity of the test-taking pool -- particularly Hispanics. As more students aim for college and take the exam, it tends to drag down average scores.
Still, while the three-point decline to 497 may look small in the context of an 800-point test, it was only the second time in the last two decades reading scores have fallen as much in a single year. And reading scores are now notably lower than scores as recently as 2005, when the average was 508.
Average math scores for the class of 2011 fell one point to 514 and scores on the critical reading section fell two points to 489.
Other recent tests of reading skills, such as the National Assessment of Education Progress, have shown reading skills of high-school students holding fairly steady. And the pool of students who take the SAT is tilted toward college-goers and not necessarily representative of all high school students.
But the relatively poor performance on the SATs could raise questions whether reading and writing instruction need even more emphasis to accommodate the country's changing demographics.
Roughly 27 percent of the 1.65 million test-takers last year had a first language other than English, up from 19 percent just a decade ago.
Jim Montoya, vice president of relationship development at the College Board, said the expanding Latino population was a factor, as well as greater outreach to get minority students to take the test. But there are others, too.
"It's a lot of little things," he said.
For example, he said, the number of black students taking a solid core curriculum -- a strong predictor of success on the test -- has fallen from 69 percent to 66 percent over a decade.
The College Board, a membership organization that owns the exam and promotes college access, also released its first "College and Career Benchmark" report, which it said would eventually be used to help show states and school districts how well prepared their students are. Based on research at 100 colleges, it calculated that scoring 1550 or above on the three sections of the test indicated a 65-percent likelihood of attaining a B-minus or above average in the freshman year of college.
Overall, 43 percent of test-takers reached that benchmark.
The SAT and rival ACT exam are taken by roughly the same number of students each year. Most colleges require scores from at least one of the exams but will consider either. In recent years, some colleges have adopted test-optional policies allowing applicants to decline to submit test scores at all.