Independent Schools and the SAT

Spring 2016

By Amada Torres

In September 2015, when the College Board released its average SAT scores for the 2015 graduating class, two details stood out for many educators.1 First was the record participation and diversity numbers (close to 1.7 million students took the test, with 50 percent being students of color). Second was the test’s lower average scores compared with previous years.
The 2015 average scores were 495 in critical reading, 511 in mathematics, and 484 in writing, for an average composite score of 1490. Overall, scores dropped from the preceding year by two points on critical reading, two points on mathematics, and three points on writing, continuing a six-year trend in which average scores either fell or held steady. Moreover, the composite score was 28 points below the score achieved in 2006, when the College Board changed the test to a 2400-point scale, and 60 points below the 1550 benchmark associated with a 65 percent chance of earning a GPA equal to a B-minus or better during one’s freshman year of college (SAT College and Career Readiness benchmark).2
In the case of students in NAIS-member schools, the 2015 average scores were 590 in critical reading, 602 in mathematics, and 588 in writing, for a total average composite of 1780 — two points above the score achieved by students in NAIS-member schools in 2006 and 230 points above the benchmark. While these results are generally encouraging for NAIS-member schools, the scores by different student demographic groups tell a more nuanced story.
For all schools, by gender, the average critical reading score for males exceeded that of females (497 vs. 493), but among test takers in NAIS-member schools, the score for female test takers was higher than that of their male counterparts (595 vs. 584). For mathematics, the pattern of higher scores for males held for students in NAIS-member schools, although with a smaller gap (611 vs. 592). In writing, female test takers in NAIS-member schools outperformed their male counterparts to an even greater degree than what was seen nationally (601 vs. 575).
Students in NAIS-member schools within each ethnic/racial group had higher scores than their counterparts nationally across all three SAT tests. Furthermore, even though there were still performance gaps among ethnic and racial groups, the gaps between white and African-American or Hispanic students and between Asian-American and African-American or Hispanic students were smaller for students in NAIS-member schools than they were for students nationally.
When it comes to test results based on family income, the national gaps remain high. In each of the three parts of the SAT, the lowest average scores were by students from families with less than $30,000 in annual income; the highest averages were those by students from families with more than $100,000 in annual income.
Similar to the results by race and ethnicity, the average scores by students in NAIS-member schools increased in direct relation to income, but this gap was smaller than the national results: 61 points in critical reading (versus 99 points nationally), 48 points in mathematics (versus 93 points nationally), and 64 points in writing (versus 96 points nationally). The advantage that test takers from NAIS-member schools have over all test takers narrows as family income rises.
The release of SAT scores comes at a significant time for the College Board. Starting in spring 2016, the College Board will offer a revised SAT.3 While a majority of colleges and universities still rely on the SAT for their admissions, there are more than 800 institutions of higher education that no longer require the SAT or ACT to admit substantial numbers of bachelor-degree applicants.4
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For independent schools, while the SAT results continue to bring good news about the schools’ ability to prepare students academically for college, they are a reminder that there is still work to do to close the gap in student success based on race, income, and gender. At the same time, independent schools understand the limits of standardized tests and continue to explore additional assessments that can capture a much broader picture of student development and growth in school. Adding other assessment options such as the Mission Skills Assessment,5 High School Survey of Student Engagement,6 and College and Work Readiness Assessment,7 among others, will expand independent schools’ ability to capture the invaluable work they do in nurturing the whole child.


1. National Association of Independent Schools, “2014–15 SAT Test Scores: National Averages and NAIS Schools.”

2. James Montoya and Wayne Camara, “SAT Report on College and Career Readiness,” September 24, 2012.

3. The College Board, “The College Board Announces Bold Plans to Expand Access to Opportunity; Redesign of the SAT.”

4. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), “Colleges and Universities That Do Not Use SAT/ACT Scores for Admitting Substantial Numbers of Students Into Bachelor Degree Programs — as of Fall 2015.”

5. Independent School Data Exchange, “Mission Skills Assessment™ (MSA).”

6. Indiana University, “HSSSE-High School Survey of Student Engagement.”

7. CAE, “Critical Thinking Performance Assessment (CWRA+).”

Amada Torres

Amada Torres is vice president for studies, insights, and research at NAIS.