AUSTIN — What was a bad year last year for Texas high school students turned even worse in 2015 as SAT scores plummeted to their lowest levels in more than two decades, mirroring downward trends across the nation on the college entrance exam.
Results released Thursday by the College Board, which administers the exam, showed that the average score of the Class of 2015 on the math section of the SAT dropped nine points from last year to 486. That was the lowest figure going back more than two decades. A perfect score is 800.
In reading, Texas students scored an average 470. That was down six points from last year and also the worst showing in over two decades.
In writing, students registered an average 454, down seven points from a year ago.
There have been very few years in recent history where Texas scores have dropped so dramatically from the previous year across all three subject areas.
Students across the U.S. saw their scores decline in both math and reading, though not as precipitously as in Texas. The average decreases were two to three points in each subject. That means that the longstanding achievement gap between Texas and the nation grew significantly this year.
State education officials have attributed the declining SAT scores in Texas to an increase in the number of minority students taking the exam. Minorities generally perform worse than white students on standardized achievement tests like the SAT and ACT, the nation’s two leading college entrance exams.
However, California students outperformed Texans by big margins this year — 20 points in math and 25 points in reading. Demographics of the student populations in the two states are similar: California is 53.6 percent Hispanic and 24.6 percent white, while Texas is 51.8 percent Hispanic and 29.5 percent white.
In addition, more than 60 percent of seniors in both states took the SAT. California had a higher percentage of low-income students taking the exam as 42.1 percent had their test fee waived — compared with 30.4 percent in Texas.
Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said the lower SAT scores this year are at least partly the result of testing policies in two dozen school districts — including Dallas and Fort Worth — where all upperclassmen now take the SAT each year.
“The SAT takers in those districts include not only those who are college-bound, but the whole student population [of juniors and seniors],” Ratcliffe said. “That translates in lower average scores because the more test takers you have, the more scores will decline.”
A total of 193,768 students in the Class of 2015 in Texas took the SAT, of whom 92.5 percent were from public schools. Public school students scored lower in all three subjects than students from private and religious schools.
State Education Commissioner Michael Williams cited the increased participation rates for the SAT and Advanced Placement exams — also administered by the College Board — as a positive reflection on Texas schools and their efforts to get more students to consider post-secondary education.
The number of SAT takers this year represented a 9.2 percent increase from the Class of 2014.
“The demographics of students electing to take SAT and AP exams mirrors the demographics we now see in Texas classrooms — and that is good,” Williams said.
“The economic future of our state rests on students with aspirations beyond high school to strengthen and build the Texas of tomorrow.”
The sharp drop in SAT math scores the past two years is likely to rekindle debate over Texas’ decision to no longer require that all high school students take Algebra II. Over the objections of business and minority-rights groups, the Legislature and State Board of Education dropped Algebra II as a requirement except for students in advanced graduation plans.
Bill Hammond, a former Texas House member who leads the influential Texas Association of Business, said at the time that the state’s “retreat” on Algebra II and other more challenging courses “dooms generations of students to a mediocre education and low-wage jobs.”
Hammond said research shows students who skip the course get lower scores in math on the SAT and ACT and are less prepared for college.
A report from the College Board indicated that 41.9 percent of students from this year’s graduating class in the U.S. met the SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark. In Texas, the figure was well below that at 31.8 percent.
High school graduates who reach the benchmark are more likely to enroll in a four-year college and graduate on time than those who do not hit the benchmark.
Most minority students, as in the past, fell far short of the benchmark. Only 17.6 percent of Hispanic and 13.2 percent of black students in Texas met the college readiness standard.
Follow Terrence Stutz on Twitter at @tstutz.