- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 30, 2000

The nation's college-bound high school seniors improved their math skills, but their scores on the verbal portion of the Scholastic Assessment Test remained stagnant over the past five years, according to an annual report released yesterday on the well-known college entrance exam.
The average SAT math score was 514, up three points from 1999, and hit its highest mark in 31 years when the average score was 517. The average score on the test's verbal section held steady at 505 for the fifth year in a row.
"The rise in math scores is cause for cautious optimism, as is the stability of verbal scores," said College Board President Gaston Caperton, a former governor of West Virginia, who announced the results yesterday in Washington.
"Verbal scores are holding steady even though more of today's college-bound high school students than ever before have English as their second language or have parents who aren't native English speakers," he said.
Locally, District of Columbia high school students scored 11 points higher on their math SATs than last year, a drastic change after steadily dropping 11 points over the last five years. But this year's scores still rank among the lowest in the nation.
Students in four area jurisdictions had lower average mathematics scores, while Montgomery County (Md.) schools, which posted its highest average in 27 years, scored just a point higher than last year's total.
Nationally, average scores for the approximately 5,700 home-schooled students who took the SAT were 568 on verbal and 532 in math, well above the national average for public-school students. Students in independent and religiously affiliated schools also scored higher on average than students in public schools, although they, like home schoolers, represent a significantly smaller proportion of those taking the SAT.
While College Board officials were upbeat in releasing the 2000 SAT results, the news heightened concern for black students, who this year lagged behind whites by 94 points in verbal scores and 104 points in math.
Although the scores for black students and other minorities have risen, and more of those students are taking the SAT as well as more rigorous high school courses to prepare for college, the achievement gap between blacks and whites has persisted over the past 10 years, College Board records show.
Black students also continue to lag behind other ethnic groups, including Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans and students who identify themselves as Hispanic/Latino, the report said. Since 1987, the number of foreign-born and first-generation Americans who take the test has grown by 47 percent.
"We're halfway home, but we have a long way to go before we can say that we are doing what we need to do to maximize the potential of all students to go to college," said Mr. Caperton, whose New York-based organization has called for all U.S. high schools to raise the level of academic expectations by offering Advanced Placement courses over the next 10 years.
Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Fordham Foundation in Washington, said the latest round of SAT scores along with a recent Harvard study that found that private-education vouchers help black students achieve serves to make the case that such a reform measure could help close the lingering achievement gap.
"I'm not prepared to declare a panacea, but surely it's worth a large-scale experiment a whole state or two, say to see whether, over time, it also affects things like SAT scores," said Mr. Finn, a former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration. "I would expect it to."
A record 1.26 million students about 44 percent of the nation's college-bound teens took the $24 exam, which is used by colleges and universities to make admissions decisions. Each section of the SAT is scored on a scale of 200 to 800, with 500 as the set average. The test is administered by the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J.
Critics of the exam, which has been around since 1926, have charged that it has been dumbed down in recent years. In 1995, officials at the College Board acted to "re-center" the scores, and scores for previous years were changed to reflect that process.
In the half-century before the re-centering, the national median SAT score fell nearly 100 points, a consequence of the changing demographics of the students taking the test. Critics of the re-centering argued that it destroyed the only permanent benchmark in U.S. education.
The majority of the SAT questions are multiple choice, and the verbal section no longer includes a section on antonyms. Students now are permitted to use calculators for the math portion. More than 83 percent of four-year colleges use SAT scores as a factor in admissions.

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