Students can practice with a free SAT online prep program. But UC will no longer require the test or the ACT alternative.

California high school students showed gains on the 2018 SAT college entrance exam but less than half of the test takers in the state scored at levels considered college ready in both reading and math skills and big gaps remain among ethnic and racial groups.

California students’ average scores were 540 in reading and writing and 536 in math, on a scale of 200 to 800 points each. That was up from 531 and 524 last year, according to results released by the test sponsor College Board. In addition, Californians did better than the national averages of 536 in reading and 531 in math.

The College Board also analyzed whether students were ready for college. That readiness is based on benchmarks that are supposed to predict whether a student is likely to earn at least a C grade in entry-level college courses. Such readiness would require a 480 or better SAT score in the so-called evidence-based reading and writing section and a 530 minimum in math.

In California overall, the percentage considered college ready showed modest improvement, from 45 percent of test takers in 2017 to 48 percent in 2018. Other California results included:

*In writing, 71 percent met the college ready benchmark, compared to 70 percent last year.

*In math, 50 percent hit the minimum target, an increase of three percentage points.

*Twenty seven percent of test takers met neither goal, the same share as last year.

Across the country, 47 percent met both the reading and math benchmarks, up from 46 percent last year.

Last year California’s average scores were slightly below the national averages in reading and math but rose enough this year to go above and beyond small gains in national scores. A spokesman for the California Department of Education said no official was available to comment on the state’s scores and whether reforms may have played any role in the increases.

However, significant gaps persisted this year among ethnic and racial groups in California with Asians and whites scoring the highest total average. Asians scored 1210 total; whites, 1167; Pacific Islanders, 1020; Latinos, 990; and African-Americans, 967.

College Board officials said it was noteworthy that the scores nationwide rose a bit even though the number of test-takers increased significantly, presumably including more students who were underprepared in some academic subjects and test-taking. Two years ago, the College Board overhauled the SAT to make it better align with what is taught in high school and also began offering free online study sessions and practice tests.

The growth in test takers was propelled in part by more states and school districts offering the SAT for free during regular school days, as opposed to the more traditional Saturday morning hours, according to Jane Dapkus, the College Board’s vice president of college readiness assessments. She also noted that it has become easier for low-income students anywhere to obtain fee waivers for the exam.

“The bottom line is students don’t have to find transportation to Saturday administrations or juggle weekend jobs or other responsibilities to take the test,” Dapkus said in a conference call with reporters. “It’s just more convenient for them and they get to take the test in a familiar, more comfortable environment in a school they go to every day.” About 36% of nationwide test takers did so on a school day, up from 27 percent last year.

Among California school districts, some offer the school day option but it is not widely available. The state’s Department of Education said it did not track how many districts offer the SAT for free and on school days.

About 262,200 students in California, or 60 percent of the state’s high school graduates this year, took the SAT, College Board officials said. That is up more than 35,000 from last year.

The SAT and its rival test ACT have battled for popularity for decades. The ACT had overtaken the SAT in sheer numbers for the first time in 2012. But this year, with its push for school day exams and other changes, the College Board says that its SAT regained that edge, with 1.99 million U.S. test takers compared to about 1.91 for the ACT. 

Yet both tests face challenges as more colleges nationwide — most prominently the elite University of Chicago earlier this year — have stopped requiring the exams for applicants and made them optional. Critics say the exams are poor predictors of college success.

The possible expansion of the SAT or its rival ACT in California was a political hot potato recently. Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that would have given school districts the option of replacing the state’s 11th-grade standardized test with the two college admissions tests.

Some school districts argue that their students take the college readiness tests more seriously than the state’s standardized tests in math and English language arts.

Brown said he would prefer that the University of California and California State University use the state’s Smarter Balanced test as an admissions exam instead of the ACT or SAT. Both UC and CSU are studying possible changes in their use of the tests; UC requires one or the other for all applicants now and CSU says either ACT or SAT is needed for applicants to overcrowded campuses and programs and for students whose high school GPAs are below 3.0.

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