Idaho loses ground on the SAT

Idaho’s SAT scores fell slightly in 2018.

On top of that, Idaho doesn’t compare well with its peers — including, most notably, other states where the SAT is the college entrance exam of choice.

The College Board released a new round of SAT scores Thursday, covering the high school graduating class of 2018. In Idaho’s case, this sample would include thousands of students who took the test in April 2017, at taxpayer expense, as part of the state’s annual SAT Day.

That’s an important factor to keep in mind, but it also puts Idaho’s latest scores into some troubling perspective.

Idaho’s raw numbers

Idaho’s average SAT score came in at 1,001 — a four-point drop from the previous year.

That’s a small decrease, considering that a perfect score is 1,600. The test is comprised of two sections, measuring verbal and math skills. On each section, scores range from 200 to 800.

A closer look at Idaho’s 2018 scores:

  • Students fared better on the verbal section, averaging 508. The average math score came in at 493.
  • This translates into college-readiness gaps. Sixty percent of Idaho students hit a college- and career-ready benchmark score on the verbal section of SAT. Only 35 percent of students hit the math benchmark. According to the College Board, the SAT’s vendor, students who hit the benchmark scores are more likely to get a C or better in first-semester college courses.
  • A third of Idaho graduates hit both benchmarks. But 38 percent hit neither benchmark.
  • Scores varied widely, based on demographics. Hispanic students, the state’s largest ethnic minority, averaged 925. American Indian and Alaskan native students averaged 896. And all students tended to test better if one of their parents hold a college degree of some kind.
  • Female students outscored their male classmates, by seven points overall.

Comparing Idaho to its peers

Idaho does not stack up well, even in an apples-to-apples comparison.

Idaho Education News focused on 10 states and the District of Columbia. The common thread: These jurisdictions have SAT participation rates of 90 percent or higher. In most cases, students can take the SAT for free.

Idaho’s average SAT score came in lower than eight of these high-participation states, scoring better than Delaware and the District of Columbia.

For all high-participation states, the SAT scores provide a relatively complete snapshot of a graduating class. This large sample includes students who are planning to go to college — including high-performing students who use the test to apply for a selective college, or apply for scholarships. The sample also includes students who aren’t planning on college, and take the SAT to check off a high school graduation requirement.

Idaho high school students must take a college entrance exam in order to graduate. Since 2012, Idaho has offered “SAT Day,” an opportunity for juniors to take the SAT during the regular school day, at taxpayer expense. The $1 million-a-year program allows students to fulfill a graduation requirement, but state officials also hope it gives some students a jumpstart toward college.

That sentiment is shared by the College Board — the SAT’s not-for-profit vendor, which still derives some market share from programs such as Idaho’s.

“Educators, states, districts and schools have been instrumental in ensuring students have the chance to take the SAT without any obstacles, especially students who need it most,” said Jane Dapkus, the College Board’s vice president of college readiness assessments, in a Thursday news release.

Keeping the numbers in context

While Idaho students averaged 1,005 on the SAT, the nation’s 2.1 million test-takers scored an average of 1,068.

Idaho’s average score topped only Delaware, the District of Columbia and West Virginia, another state where students can take the SAT for free.

These comparisons are inevitable, and unfair.

In many cases, and across much of the West, only a self-selecting handful of students take the SAT.

Idaho scored far lower than every one of its neighbors — by at least 80 points, on average. But the participation rates also vary wildly. Only 4 percent of Utah’s graduates took the SAT, and Wyoming’s participation rate was only 3 percent. With a small number of test-takers — skewing towards high-achieving college-bound students — both states scored much higher than Idaho.

If this all sounds familiar, it should. The same caution applies to comparing scores from another college entrance exam, the ACT. Only in this case, the tables are turned.

Idaho scores higher than the national average, and outpaces its neighbors, on the ACT. But barely a third of Idaho’s students take the ACT.

So while GOP state superintendent Sherri Ybarra and Republican gubernatorial nominee Brad Little took turns praising Idaho ACT scores during recent candidate debates, they did not mention the SAT scores.

More reading: How did Idaho students fare on the most recent “SAT Day?” Here’s a closer look.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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