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It all adds up: SAT scores soaring

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 27, 2003


The nation's high school class of 2003 achieved the highest score on the math section of the SAT in at least 36 years - a gain attributed to greater enrollment in advanced math and science courses and the proliferation of high-tech gadgets and computers.

Students' scores in the verbal section of the test hit a 16-year high.

The College Board, which owns the nation's most popular college entrance exam, said Tuesday that this year's high school graduates had an average cumulative score of 1,026 points on the SAT, up six points from 2002.

Both the average math (519) and verbal (507) scores were up three points from last year.

Educators around the country hailed the results of the 2003 SAT tests, released Tuesday, as good news, with some reservations: The scores of students from rural areas and large cities continued to lag, and girls continued to lag behind boys, particularly in math.

In Florida, the cumulative average rose one point, to 996, with an average of 498 on both the verbal and math sections. That was a two-point improvement in verbal and one-point fall in math.

The results appeared to overturn the conventional equation in which test scores fall as more and more students take the exams. This year, a record number of students, 1.4-million, took the SAT, but scores rose three points each in both the math and verbal sections of the exam. The number of students in Florida who took the test increased 10 percent to nearly 83,400.

"A lot of work has been done to improve math, and it's beginning to pay off," said Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, which sponsors the test.

But Caperton, a former governor of West Virginia, said that after looking at the results, he worried that "not enough money" was going to impoverished schools under the new federal education act, No Child Left Behind.

"A democracy really depends on equal opportunity for an education, and these figures show that we're not providing that equal opportunity," Caperton said. "In large cities and rural areas, you see they're really still behind. They're really not catching up, and that's what concerns us. That's what No Child Left Behind was really focused toward."

The results announced Tuesday appeared to contrast sharply with the results of the ACT, another college entrance exam, released last week. Those results showed student scores holding steady, but at a level indicating that a majority of students were unprepared for college-level work in math or science.

Three years ago, however, the ACT organization signed contracts to administer its exam to all high school students in Illinois and Colorado, expanding the pool of test-takers to include many who had no intention of attending college, said Jon Erickson, vice president for educational services at ACT.

An increase of a few points on the SAT "or a stable score on the ACT are in some ways representing the same news," Erickson said. Students who took their high school's college preparation curriculum, which typically includes a foreign language and higher levels of math and science, also increased their scores on the ACT, he said.

The average math SAT score of 519 represented a 16-point gain over the past decade, while the average verbal score of 507 represented a 7-point gain.

Arlene Ackerman, the superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, said one way to improve verbal scores writing skills is to emphasize writing skills in classes other than English and composition.

"We want students to get multiple experiences in writing. And to do it well, we have to see writing as an integral part of every content area," said Ackerman.

Henry Levin, a professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, attributed the "reasonably good improvement" to the increased competition among students for admission to selective colleges and universities. That has led more students to tackle hard courses, including advanced placement courses, he said.

"School districts have vastly increased the numbers of students in these courses and the numbers of courses available," Levin said. "Kids who in the past would not have taken AP courses are now being encouraged to take them."

Overall, this year's average math scores are the highest the College Board could document since 1967. The College Board altered the way it scores the test in 1995, but in Tuesday's report, scores before that year were recalculated to reflect the changes. The board was unable to provide adjusted scores prior to 1967. The SAT was first given in 1926.

Girls have improved notably in math over the past decade, with their average scores increasing 19 points to 503. Boys' math scores have gone up 13 points over the same period of time to 537.

The board said 54 percent of the test-takers were girls and 46 percent boys.

Along with the ACT, the SAT has come under fire from critics who maintain high schools and colleges place too much emphasis on standardized entrance exams. Others contend the tests are unfair to students from poor districts.

"Poor kids, and especially poor kids of color, are behind the eight ball from the start," said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director for FairTest, an organization that advocates balanced standardized exams.

"Their schools aren't as good and these tests reinforce those differences and adds to the bias that these kids face. The ACT and SAT exaggerate the real differences in preparation and make it even harder for these kids to get ahead."

- Information from the Associated Press and the New York Times was used in this report.

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