One theory for the decline is fatigue, reports CBS News correspondent Jerry Bowen. The new longer test is exhausting.
"Once you get to a certain point, you don't care how important the test is, you don't care if it decides the rest of your life," says Robert Haughton, a college freshman. "You're just tired of taking the test."
However, the College Board insists that fatigue wasn't to blame, even though this year's class was the first to take a new version of the exam that added an essay. It now takes an average of three hours and 45 minutes to complete the test, not counting breaks, up from three hours previously.
The results come several months after numerous colleges reported surprisingly low SAT scores for this year's incoming college freshmen. The nonprofit College Board, which had said scores would be down this year, released figures Tuesday showing combined critical reading and math skills fell seven points on average to 1021.
The average critical reading score fell from 508 to 503, while math dropped from 520 to 518. On the new SAT writing section, the class scored 497 on average, with girls scoring 11 points higher than boys.
In addition to the new writing section, the exam taken by the class of 2006 had other new features, including higher-level math and the elimination of analogies.
The College Board noted the drop in math scores amounts to one-fifth of one test question, and the reading to one-half of one question. But over about 1.5 million test-takers such drops are significant, and this was the biggest year-to-year decline since the class of 1975.
The results come two weeks after it was announced the class of 2006 had posted the biggest score increase in 20 years on the rival ACT exam. The ACT, which is also accepted by almost all colleges that require standardized tests, is generally more focused on material covered in high school classes than the SAT, which is more of a measure of general ability. But more students in traditional SAT states like Connecticut and New Jersey appear to be taking both exams to try to improve their applications to selective colleges.
The initial indication SAT scores were down this year prompted speculation students may have been tiring out toward the end of the marathon exam.
But in announcing the scores, the College Board said an analysis of 700,000 critical reading and math exams taken in the spring and fall of 2005 showed students were performing about the same early and late in the exam.
Instead, the College Board explained the drop by saying fewer students were taking the exam a second time, which typically boosts scores 30 points. The price of the test has risen from $28.50 to $41.50, though fees are sometimes waived.
Experts say the changeover in exams probably affected how students approached the test, and thus the scores. Students in the class of 2006 had the chance to take both the old SAT exam, until midway through their junior year, and the new SAT after that. If they did well the first time out, some may have opted to stand pat with those scores. Some colleges continued to accept scores from the old test during the bridge period.
"When a new test is introduced, students usually vary their test-taking behavior in a variety of ways and this affects scores," College Board President Gaston Caperton said in a news release.
On the SAT, boys' scores fell eight points from 513 to 505 in critical reading and from 538 to 536 in math. Girls' scores fell from 505 to 502 in reading and from 504 to 502 in math.
Average reading scores for black students rose 1 point from 433 to 434, while math scores fell two points from 431 to 429.
The College Board lists three categories for Hispanic students. Scores for Mexican-Americans rose three points overall, Puerto Ricans' fell two points and scores of students who identified themselves as "Other Hispanic" fell 11 points.