National reading scores on the SAT college-entrance exam have sunk to their lowest point in at least four decades, and the proportion of test-takers prepared for college has remained stuck at 43 percent, test sponsors announced Monday.
The average score on the exam's "critical reading" section among college-bound high school seniors in the class of 2012 dropped to 496 points, down one point from last year and 34 points from 1972. Math and writing scores also were down from their peaks. Each of the SAT's three sections is scored on a range from 200 to 800.
The Manhattan-based College Board, which sponsors the test, calculated that 43 percent of SAT takers were well-prepared for studies at four-year colleges -- the same figure as in 2011. Calculations were based on the percentage of students scoring a combined 1550 points, indicating that they could expect to earn a B-minus average or better during their first year on campus.
Testing officials, at a Manhattan news conference, warned that students' lack of academic preparation in high school jeopardized their college studies and future careers.
Since 2008, they said, the proportion of teens completing a solid "core curriculum" in high schools has dropped from 79 to 75 percent nationally, and from 81 to 75 percent in New York State.
"A core curriculum is, in many ways, a minimum of what students need to succeed in college," said Wayne Camara, a College Board vice president.
The organization defines a core curriculum as at least four years of English, three years of math, three years of natural science and three of history or social science. Camara said Monday that very successful students tend to take four years of both math and science in high school, and to complete Algebra I in eighth grade.
The College Board has faced criticism since last year, when security lapses in SAT procedures led to charges of cheating against 20 students or former students from five high schools on Nassau County's North Shore. The misconduct was originally uncovered and reported by school officials in the Great Neck district.
The case revolved around a Great Neck North graduate, Sam Eshaghoff, who was charged with accepting as much as $3,600 per test to take the SAT for other students. Eshaghoff and one other defendant still are awaiting sentencing. All 18 other cases have been resolved through legal settlements, with the defendants classified as youthful offenders.
After an investigation, the College Board put new security precautions in place for the round of testing that begins Oct. 6. All test-takers will be required to register in advance and to present photo IDs. Starting in March, test-takers also will be required to provide other photos that will be printed on testing-site admission tickets.
Brent Carris, a senior at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, already has his photo-bearing ticket for Oct. 6.
"I think it's a good idea -- avoids the problems that happened in Great Neck," he said.
South Side's guidance supervisor, Laurie Levy, worries a bit that some students will show up for testing as in the past, without registering in advance. Levy has worked to notify students of procedural changes, which she generally endorses.
"It's just another way of being responsible, and it keeps the kids responsible, too," she said.
Monday, the SAT's sponsors reported that the average national writing score dipped one point from last year, to 488. That's the lowest result since the essay-writing section was added to the test in 2006, when the average national score was 497. The SAT average math score, at 514, held steady from last year, but was down from the peak of 520 recorded in 2005.
The board provided test averages nationally dating to 1972. The SAT has been administered, in varying forms, since 1926.
New York State's average reading score dropped two points from last year, to 483. The average writing score was down one point, to 475, and the average math result rose a point, to 500.
Ninety percent of college-bound New York State students take the SAT, one of the nation's highest participation rates. Consequently, New York's average scores tend to be lower than those elsewhere.
Both College Board and school groups said the national decline in reading scores appears due in part to more test-takers who speak languages other than exclusively English.
Since 2002, the proportion of such students has risen from 19 percent to 28 percent nationally, and from 22 percent to 29 percent in New York State.
"While it's certainly disappointing to see SAT scores drop, we shouldn't make too much of it," said Jim Hull, senior policy analyst for the National School Boards Association.