SAT scores: are students improving?

Educators, who haven't quite known how to interpret the latest Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores, will soon have their curiosity satisfied. They will watch closely this year to see if the leveling of the scores last year, when they stopped falling for the first time since 1968, signaled a trend or was just a one-time fluke. Twelve SAT test dates scheduled for 1981-82 began Nov. 7 and more than 1.4 million college-bound high school seniors are expected to take the test this school year.

Because the college future of many high school juniors and seniors rests on their SAT scores, steadily declining scores have caused concern. Average scores on the verbal section of the SAT fell from 478 (of a possible 800) in 1962 to 424 in 1980; average mathematics scores dropped from 502 to 466.

Four issues are raised by the poorer scores:

* Are the schools doing the job they should, as measured by the test, in preparing students for college?

* Are the students taking the test in 1981 significantly different from students of 1962?

* Is the vehicle of the test itself responsible for the decline in scores?

* How important are the tests in the college admissions process?

For Scott D. Thompson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, (NASSP), it is clear that ''public schools have been terribly naive by not consciously preparing their college-bound students for the kinds of skills standardized tests examine. These skills make a difference in college performance.''

The NASSP studied 23 high schools whose students' average SAT scores had improved in the last 10 years. The study found that the kind of curriculum a student experienced ''definitely has an impact on scores,'' says Mr. Thompson. ''No way will a student get a good score on the math section unless they had algebra and geometry.

''All of the 23 schools we studied had a minimum two-year math curriculum with algebra and geometry required and a rigorous traditional English program,'' he adds. ''Kids from those schools will have better math and verbal backgrounds and will do well on the test.''

Are students taking the test today different? The answer from all corners is a resounding yes. Familial and social patterns have changed and a much larger student population now takes the test than in the past. College doors are open to minority and low-income groups that historically did not attend college.

''The mission of schools changed and student performance levels reflect this change,'' says Barrie Kelly of the College Board, the nonprofit group of 2,500 colleges, schools, and education associations that sponsor the test along with Educational Testing Service, (ETS).

A more thorny question is whether the yardstick, the standardized test, has remained the same.

In 1980, New York instituted a ''truth-in-testing'' law, forcing the testing services to provide interested students with the questions and answers to tests they had taken. Originally, New York's law was vigorously opposed by ETS and the College Board. Officials objected that this would mean that new exams would have to be developed for each testing date. They argued this would be prohibitively expensive.

ETS was embarrassed twice last March when students, who obtained their test questions under the new law, found errors in the accepted answers to two questions.

ETS was also criticized this year by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which found that SAT ''cram'' or ''coaching'' courses can significantly increase a student's score. The FTC said that the failure to inform students that coaching can help was unfair, especially to poorer students who would not normally take such courses.

As a result of the FTC findings, the College Board took a number of steps to increase student familiarity with the tests. Several complete SAT's were published and a national policy of disclosure was adopted for the Preliminary SAT, which consists of old SAT questions and is essentially a warm-up for juniors who plan to take the SAT at a later date.

All students who take the SATs on Nov. 7 and Dec. 5, 1981, and May 1 and June 5 and 6, 1982, will be able to obtain the answers after they take the test. The dates selected are those on which the College Board estimates more than 75 percent of the students will take the test.

Do the tests help college admissions boards make intelligent decisions about which students are best suited to their college? Experts give a qualified yes.

''SAT scores do help predict college performance for the freshman year when compared with a student's regular classroom grades,'' says Julie McClellan, assistant director of admissions at MIT.

Speaking for the College Board, Ms. Kelly says, ''The SAT is important, but there is a lot of misunderstanding in how it is used in the college admissions process. It is the one criterion that is standard and equal, a common denominator to all applicants. It is an inclusive, not an exclusive tool, especially for students from rural or nonprestigious urban schools. But it should never be the only, or even the most important factor in the admissions process.''

Dr. Stephen Isaac, director of evaluation services for the San Diego public schools, says: ''With grade point averages inflated, students can overestimate how they will do in college. Standardized tests call for a more realistic estimate. But they do not measure work habits or study habits for students who receive only a modest score on tests; in reality, good work habits will make them sucessful in college.''

A 1979 nationwide survey of 1,600 colleges and universities reveals that fewer than 2 percent consider the SAT score to be the ''most important factor.''

Research finds that the best single predictor of first term college success is a student's secondary-school record. Standardized test score results are the second best single predictor of first-term college success. When combined with one another, the secondary school record and tests are a better predictor than either used singly.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.