SAT Scores Drop. Should we care?

Dear Colleagues:

An article from yesterday's Inside HigherEd caught my eye:  SAT Scores Drop.  I've read it several times because it discusses the widening gap in scores based on family income and race/ethnicity.  But, I keep putting it aside thinking:  "Most adults learners are not asked to take the SAT tests..."  But, many adult learners are hoping to provide an example for their children about the importance of education.  Our students' children are taking the SAT (and ACT), even if our own students are not.  Here's one of the findings:

"In each of the three parts of the SAT, the lowest average scores were [for] those [individuals] with less than $20,000 in family income...In reading, for example, the average for those with family income below $20,000 is 433, while the average for those with income above $200,000 is 570."

So, do you have some suggestions on how to address this?  Is this something we should talk about with students as they prepare to go on to postsecondary education?  

Cynthia Zafft

Postsecondary Completion Moderator


For a little over a decade, major universities have been making SAT tests optional as part of their admissions. As they collate data of college success compared to the SAT scores they do get (presumably some of the higher range of scores) compared to the success of students that choose not to submit. The data is indicating there is almost no statistical correlation between SAT scores and student success in college. There were an equal number of drop outs, equal number of 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 and even a similar ratio in 4.0 ranges between those that submitted scores and those that did not. Ironic that these studies have been going on for so many years and yet some states (like Maine) now require the SAT and even pay in full to have every Junior in the state take this test during school! Astounding how much research is often discarded when good marketing is present. 

Take a moment and google for some of these reports. Here is one of the more recently released ones (it is pdf so may take a moment to pop up in your browser).

I am all for promoting assessments that help employers and colleges guide students to finding success in life. Sadly, there is way too much in Federal and State dollars going into for-profit assessment agencies based on past practice and good marketing and not based on current data or studies. It is a shame that even some of those massive dollars could not be invested in practitioners in the field collaborating to create useful assessments together with local employers and admissions people. This situation is similar to the pharmaceutical companies determining what doctors need to prescribe regardless of what the doctor observes or feels is in the patients best interest. We all hate to think of that happening, but we seem to be more OK with the similar situation happening in education. 

In short, our learners need to be able to reflect "What am I struggling with and how might I try to fix that?", adapt "That did not work because I see... so I now need to try X, Y, or Z ..." and communicate "I am having difficulty with ... and would like to get help with you know where I might find something like that?" to succeed, and very few of the skills included in these three areas are assessed. Self advocacy ability is a higher indicator of success than ANY standardized test score. 

Ed says, "Self advocacy ability is a higher indicator of success than ANY standardized test score".  I'm curious what others think about this statement.  

I agree, for the most part, but then come to a similar question that many do in preparing students for the SAT; how do we teach our learners these skills?

If the theories and concepts of academic content on the SAT are a challenge for learners, so too are self-determination, self-advocacy and academic resilience.  In an effort to unpack these frameworks, the Disabilities in Adult Education and Post-Secondary Completion communities will be hosting a special event in early October to learn more about these concepts, their application to learners and best practices in the classroom.  

Stay tuned for more details on this event!



A standardizes test should provide us with an understanding of a student's academic preparedness for higher education. The problem with measuring retention compared to student test scores is that we are not looking at the entire picture. Is the student able to afford to continue with college? Does the student have adequate support systems? Does the student know how to navigate the insitution / financail aid system / credit hour assignments, and so on.

The discussion on standardized tests such as the ACT / SAT and retention in higher education needs to be inclusive of more than academic skills. There are assessments that many instutions use. One example is the College Student Inventory by Noel Levtiz. Attrition rates in higher education are caused by the same factors  - institutional, instructional, situational, motivational - that occur in the adult classroom. Surveys such as the CSI measure a full range of identifies that help programs address student's barriers to success. I look forward to joining the discussion in October. 

Hello colleagues, I think many of us would like more information about how "self-advocacy" might be assessed. Kathy, would you say the College Student Inventory is able to do that? Could you tell us a bit more about this tool? What has been your experience?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Assessment & College and Career Standards CoP


For anyone looking for more information on assessing self-determination, the Learning to Achieve: A PROFESSIONAL’S GUIDE TO EDUCATING ADULTS WITH LEARNING DISABILITIES provides some excellent ideas on pp. 21-24, under the sub-heading, "What Practices Can Promote Self-Determination for Adults with LD?"    




The CSI doesn't identify whether a student has self-advocacy skills, but rather provides a large overview of a student's individual perception. The results of the inventory provide an overview of the attributes identified as needed for success in higher education. It provides a snapshot of a students academic motivation, coping skills, and receptiviity to support services, excetera. Using the results from an inventory like this (as I am sure there are many self-inventory options) can help a student really evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. Self-advocacy really begins with a clear plan and vision. Helping students set goals and benchmarks while identifying strategies to reach these goals is the foundation of self-advocacy. It's not about the specific tool used - but rather, about how the tool is used to connect goals to actual daily activities. While the CSI is probably the most recognized and widely used inventory in higher education, adult ed programs can select any inventory that will help students evaluate where they are and where they want to go. 


Thanks for the additional information, Kathy.  So, this is really a wide variety of skills.  I was particularly interested to see "receptivity to support services."  Along with finding that adult learners may not know about support services or that they may not be offered at a time they can attend, some are really reluctant to use them (maybe hearkens back to earlier experiences of being embarrassed to need/use help in school).  Cynthia

I think Kathy hit on a very important reminder as we look at tools that can help us accomplish different educational goals. Specifically, she stated, 

Helping students set goals and benchmarks while identifying strategies to reach these goals is the foundation of self-advocacy. 

Part of this process will of course include some reflection or some diagnostics to help find some starting metrics for the individual, but the real work comes in how we help students plan, succeed and fail, reflect, and revise to plan again. This cycle is second nature to those of us that have experienced sustained successes (by reflecting, planning and processing our failures). For many of our learners, this process might as well be voodoo or rocket science. How many times have you asked a learner, "So, what do you think you have accomplished/learned so far this semester?" only to get "Not much" or "Nothing".  On the flip side of that, introducing many goal setting and tracking tools does not simply make our learners proficient in that process of planning, success/failure, reflection, revision. 

It takes a coach or mentor. In every sport, participants experience this cycle of planning and processing because coaches are there setting up the activities, trying to offer guidance through the process, offering reflection help, and assisting in the adjustments to the next plan. Just look at how Bill Billichick handles losses or adversity...this is a very nice model of how we teachers might want to adapt. He came into his first head coaching job as an authoritarian and he alienated most of his staff, players, bosses and fans. In his second stint at coaching he changed his approach to coaching and guiding every member of his staff and the organization so that they all understood their individual goals, strengths, weaknesses and directions in a way that congruently aligned with where he envisioned the team going. Many in the teaching field could benefit from coaching PD to help fill in for some of the gaps we find when we simply plug in "solutions" in our educational environments. If you have not been following professional sports and wish a taste of my reference above, there was a nice video that came out this week entitled, "Do your job". In this video, you want to concentrate on what Bill Billichick says or does after every struggle. In particular, observe how he watched his entire team get abused in the 4th game of the season and yet he felt great about some of the important aspects of where his team was at in terms of learning his system. 

Technology can help a ton as well. With smart phones and tablets often close by, learners can quickly click a few buttons and record progress without even typing (I created a system to do this with the google drive tools and there are other tools out there). A student simply picks up their phone, clicks on a link to their goal tracking and then uses the voice to text feature of the phone to record their progress. The tool helps sort and track progress in each of the student's goals they set on intake and during our monthly reviews. Now, the learner and his/her coach can easily see just how much the learner is doing rather than concentrating on what is still left undone or all those other negatives usually used to evaluate progress. 

This brings us to a final point. How we assess success and progress is vital to continuing to motivate persistence in our learners. Traditional grading is a sham and a useless motivator for many because it starts with an expectation that we all start with 100 and then we watch the points drop off for every deficiency we have. Simply flipping this process to recording how many skills/facts/processes are demonstrated creates a positive cycle of growth and psychologically sets the stage for that last phase of "plan again". As an example of this: many learners in math are convinced they can't do math and are no good at math. We hear these clearly battered phrases almost daily. Once a learner sees that there are 12 steps/concepts that needed to be demonstrated in a problem and the student was successful with 9 of those 12 leaving only 3 areas to concentrate on, that student is inspired to push through those three areas. After all it is only 3 things out of those 12 ! Contrast that with the grade equivalent of 75% which is a useless metric from the learner's perspective other than to judge their overall progress as "BARELY PASSING" with a number that means little to them in terms of what do I need to work on and how much work is left to do. Our assessment has to evolve, in spite of hundreds of years of grading practice, into the positive feedback loop that good coaches always do. It takes our ability to highlight the areas of success, identify the areas of concern or weakness, set up activities to bolster those concerns and timelines or finite sequential goals to help indicate progress along this path, and then finally help observe and share data with the individual through each step in their progress. 

Educators need to become coaches to really find success in self-advocacy.


Hi Kathy:

Good to hear from you.  Regarding the College Student Inventory, I wasn't able to download the research reports (I don't have a "institution" that I am affiliated with) but was wondering about when, where, and how you see the other "college readinesses" (inventing a word here, I think) being evaluated.  For example, when and how is an inventory used most effectively?  As students finish adult education?  During the admissions process?  After a student "gets in" based on academic preparedness?


Postsecondary Completion Moderator


I think that any inventory used should be integrated into the intake process. There are many (Colors -I'm a 'green' / Myers-Briggs - I'm an ENFP). For the discussion here, I suggested the CSI because it is targeted for academics and our goal is to prepare students for higher education. In an ideal orientation, a student completes their required academic assessment such as the TABE or the CASAS, complete an inventory, and then create a study plan. The study plan inicates when they will be in class and when they will have time to work on their studies outside of class. 

After the testing and inventories are completed, an intake staff member, transitions staff expert, or teacher goes over the results with the student. This is where you can identify any red flags and help the student develop real and tangible plans. Does that help?