Changes Over Time in SAT Verbal Scores and Literacy

This provides a visual to show change over time in reading, with SAT scores in math provided as background. To see other issues with possible changes in the student population, click here.


When you look at the chart and compare the verbal scores for 1962 (or 1980) and 2011, ask yourself whether it is more accurate to subtract the +80 increase in the 1990s column. For example, should the 1962 score of 556 for verbal be compared with a 2011 score of 417 (the 497 shown less the +80 when the College Board “decided to ‘recenter’ the scale”)?


To read the text behind the columns of data in the chart, scroll down (below the chart).

Student Cohorts








Decline in Points/%

12th-grade High school SAT – math








36 - 1962 to 1980

12th-grade High school SAT – verbal/reading








54 - 1962 to 1980

High school graduates – “Document literacy”








1% - 1992 to 2003

High school graduates – “Prose literacy”








1% - 1992 to 2003

College graduates–“Document literacy”








“almost a third” - 1992 to 2003

College graduates–“Prose literacy”








“a quarter” - 1992 to 2003

College graduates–“Quantitative literacy”








“very little” - 1992 to 2003

#  Source: Adams.  Adams also notes the increase of 80 and “about 25” points in the “early 1990s” when the College Board “decided to ‘recenter’ the scale by adding” points. Adams covers why the SAT after 1980 was not more difficult, but less.

& Source: O’Neill.  O’Neill’s article includes these definitions: “Prose literacy denotes the ability to search, comprehend, and use information in continuous texts.”  “Document literacy means the ability to do these same things employing noncontinuous texts in various formats.”  “Quantitative literacy involves having the knowledge and skills to work with numbers and figures….”

$ Source: Banchero of the Wall Street Journal. Banchero notes “SAT scores for the high-school graduating class of 2011 fell in all three subject areas, and the average reading and writing scores were the lowest ever recorded.… That is the lowest [reading] score since 1972, when the College Board began calculating the average scores of individual graduating classes. Reading scores have been steadily declining since 2005. The writing score dipped to 489, down from 491 last year. Writing scores have gone down almost every year since the exam was first given in 2006.



Overview of the Sources Used to Create the Chart - Click on the footnote to find the URLs for each of the sources so you can read them for yourself.

These sources provide the text used to create the chart showing change over time. They reveal some of the possible changes over time in literacy and verbal skills.

Educator E.D. Hirsch – “How Schools Fail Democracy”[1]

Marilyn Jager Adams – “Advancing Our Students Language and Literacy: The Challenge of Complex Texts” [2]

Historian William O’Neill – “The Appalling Decline of Literacy Among College Graduates” [3]

ETS – A Culture of Evidence: Postsecondary Assessment and Learning Outcomes[4]


Wall Street Journal[5]



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[1] How Schools Fail Democracy” by E.D. Hirsch Jr.  September 28, 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education



The Chronicle identifies Hirsch as “founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and an emeritus professor at the University of Virginia. His most recent book, The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, was just published by Yale University Press.”


The article explores many issues with democracy, It also traces the problem with literacy to the 1970s: “the language abilities of our 17-year-olds have remained stuck at the steeply declined levels of the 1970s, while the language gap between white students on one side and black and Hispanic students on the other remains distressingly and immovably large.”


[2] Marilyn Jager Adams – “Advancing Our Students Language and Literacy: The Challenge of Complex Texts” in American Educator, Winter 2010-2011. URL for the article: - This article includes a beautiful collection of references.

[3] The Appalling Decline of Literacy Among College Graduates” by William O’Neill October 26, 2009  History News Network



History News Network identifies O’Neill as “the author of A Bubble in Time: America During the Interwar Years, 1989-2001 (Ivan R. Dee, 2009).”


[4] Culture of Evidence: Postsecondary Assessment and Learning Outcomes, Educational Testing Service, 2007.

Homepage for ETS:

Main page for the report itself: - The report and related ones are downloadable for free.


The report includes information from NAAL and related authors, including the source of this powerful statement: “only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it.”


[5] “SAT Reading, Writing Scores Hit Low” - Stephanie Banchero – September 15, 2011