Despite some claims that students of prior generations tested higher on the SAT than did the students of today, that wasn't true for Harford County 25 years ago, in the 1985-86 school year.
During the 1985-86 school year, according to an Aegis article from September 1986, 907 high school seniors throughout Harford County took the Scholastic Aptitude Test, as it was then known. Unlike today, published results were broken down based on gender.
Overall, in the 1985-86 school year, Harford County SAT takers had an average math score of 469 and an average verbal score of 438. Twenty-five years later, 1,585 Harford seniors taking the test averaged 512 in math and 507 in critical reading, the latter which largely replaced the verbal section of the test.
Comparisons between today's students in Harford County and those of 25 years ago are tricky, of course, especially when it comes to measuring performance on a standardized test like the SAT.
The SAT, a major component of college admissions decisions, has undergone a number of changes in the past 25 years, amid long-standing claims that the test is culturally, racially and gender biased, among the many such criticisms of the test's methodology and its importance in the college admissions process. One key change, in the mid-1990s, involved a reworking of the questions on the verbal section. The test's writing section was added in 2006 and is based on an optional College Board test that many older generation students may recognize by the name "writing sample."
There were also changes made in the scoring process in the mid-1990s which caused score inflation, according to critics, although the College Board also publishes conversion tables to be used in comparing scores of years prior to 1995 and years after.
In addition to changes in the SAT, teaching methods and school curriculum have changed significantly in a quarter century, as would be expected, and more students are taking the SAT today, which is generally believed to depress score averages. Another major change involves coaching. And, even though the College Board, which administers the test, has long zealously maintained that students cannot be coached to improve their scores, an entire coaching industry has grown up in the United States, and many students take advantage of its services for a fee.
The College Board has also dropped the SAT's original name, Scholastic Aptitude Test, and now claims the acronym stands for nothing. And, some colleges no longer use SAT results in making their admissions decisions.
There are, however, are some aspects of the SAT that haven't changed.
Each section of the SAT is still scored in a range of 200-800 and most elite private colleges and state universities still base admission decisions and scholarship awards, at least partially, on SAT results.
And, despite all the changes and claims and counter-claims about the validity of the test and what it supposedly does or does not measure — and the fallacies of making generation-to-generation, and even year-to-year comparisons, the numbers still suggest the Harford County 12th-grader of 2011 scored better on average than the 12th-grader of 25 years ago.
The historical data
In 1986, according to the report in The Aegis, Harford SAT math scores were down by six points from the previous school year, while verbal scores were down eight points. In 2011, math average was down 10 points and critical reading was down one point from the previous year, according to the Harford school system.
For the writing section of the test, which didn't exist in 1986, Harford test-takers averaged 482 in 2011, down a point from 2010.
The math score in 1986 came in at six points lower than the state and national average of 475, but the verbal score was two points higher than the state average of 436 and seven points higher than the national average of 431.
In 2011, compared to the state averages of 499 for critical reading and 502 for math, Harford County's average reading score was eight points higher and the math was 10 points higher.
Even using the current College Board conversion table that puts the 1986 U.S. averages at 509 for verbal and 500 for math, the students in Harford County of 2011, with their averages of 507 and 512, respectively, still appear to have scored significantly better than their predecessors of 25 years earlier.
In the 1986 Aegis article, then deputy superintendent Alden Halsey, when discussing the lower scores from the previous year, said the high scores of 1985 were an "aberration."
Participation in the SAT had dropped in 1986, despite an increase in female seniors taking the test, according to the article. There was a 5 percent increase in girls taking the test, 519, and a 5 percent decrease in male students, 388. For obvious reasons, the school system no longer breaks out SAT averages by gender.
Despite the increase in female test takers in 1986, Halsey said at the time that the girls' average test scores were still lower than their male counterparts. He also noted, however, that female students earned more A grades in school than male students.
The total number of test takers in 1986, 907, represented a 47 percent increase compared to previous years, Harford school officials said at the time. In 2011, the number of senior test takers, 1,585, was an increase of 145 over the previous year.
Although Joppatowne High School posted the lowest average SAT scores across the board in Harford County in 2011, the school's average verbal score was the highest in the county in 1986 at 462, six points higher than C. Milton Wright's average.
In 1986, Fallston High School seniors posted the county's highest math average score at 495, 23 points higher than Bel Air High.
In 2011, Bel Air High School had the county's highest average scores in all three sections of the SAT.