The average reading score on the SAT college entrance exam for 2012 dipped to its lowest level in 40 years. The average overall score for 2012 was 20 points less than the 2006 average. These numbers, however, tell much bigger stories when the participating students are broken down by economic status, gender and race. The College Board, the company that administers the SAT, said these disparities are a result of inequalities in American society, not in the way the tests are written. But studies continually prove this explanation to be disingenuous and flat-out incorrect.

Income Gap

The positive correlation between average SAT scores and family income is undeniable. According to data released by the College Board this year, the average SAT score rose with each additional $20,000 the family earned. For instance, the average score for a student in a $20K annual income home was 1322. This number rose to 1397 for students in a $40K home, etc. Families struggling to make ends meet are less likely to acquire services such as Study Point to help prepare their children for college entrance exams. Pretests and individual tutoring can improve final scores by 30 points or more, which can be the difference between getting admitted or not.

The income gap crosses racial lines as well. The 2010 U.S. Census found that 27 percent of all black persons and 26 percent of all Hispanics in the United States live below the poverty level. In comparison, only 9.9 percent of white persons and 12 percent of Asian Americans lived in poverty. Predictably in 2009, black students had an average SAT score of 1276 (out of 2400); Hispanics 1362; white students 1581; and Asians 1623.

Gender Gap

Though the gap between male and female overall SAT scores has narrowed over the decades, a significant disparity still exists in mathematics. Females averaged 499 (out of 800) on the math section, while males averaged 534. Some have concluded this trend, which has consistently been the case for well over 35 years, is the product of more females taking the SAT annually, and thus a bigger sample size and subsequent lower average. But this conclusion is debunked by the fact that the math gap has narrowed consistently since the 1980s, while the number of females taking the test compared to males every year continues to grow. There are others who attribute the gap to females having better verbal skills, thus more career options and less interest in math than their male counterparts. This theory has some merit, in that females averaged a 499 score on the writing portion of the SAT in 2009, while males lagged behind with a 486.

Cultural Bias

This is by far the most controversial of the explanations as to why SAT scores vary across different races and cultural. One example of a culturally-biased, fill-in-the-blank question: “Jason had half a grapefruit, two pancakes, a slice of bacon, and a glass of milk for his very _______ breakfast.” “Nutritious” is the correct answer from the multiple choices, but low income students may have chosen “unusual” instead. Another example is a question such as “strawberry: red” and the answers are other fruits and their respective colors. But when confronted with something like “lemon: yellow,” some Hispanic students would think this is incorrect because a green fruit called a “limon” is common in Latin America.

By Isabella Jimenez

Isabella teaches ESL at the middle school and high school levels. She was the editor-in-chief of an online Spanish language magazine until she decided to go freelance.