- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

This year’s crop of college-bound high school graduates had the highest average mathematics scores in more than three decades on the SAT.

The national average math score on the SAT this year was 519 — three points higher than last year and 14 points higher than in 1974 — according to the College Entrance Examination Board, which administered the test to 1.4 million students in the class of 2003.

The national average SAT verbal score of 507 — also a three-point increase over last year — has just returned for the first time to its 1987 level after steadily dropping for most of the past 35 years, the College Board reported yesterday.

Locally, Virginia students’ scores increased by four points on the verbal and mathematics portions from last year. The average score was 514 and 510, respectively. District seniors improved four points to 484 this year on the verbal, and improved one point in math for an average score of 474. In Maryland, the average verbal score for last year’s senior class rose two points to 509, and the average math score went up two points to 515.

Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, said the national scores show “we are clearly headed in the right direction” and that emphasizing early reading and mathematics proficiency in elementary grades, which is one of the components of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act, is the key to continued success.

“A strong, early focus on the college success skills of reading, writing and mathematics continues to be the best path for reaching excellence on the SAT,” Mr. Caperton said. “Verbal scores still trail math scores, so we must continue our efforts to focus on verbal skills. Rigorous preparation in this area is crucial for students’ success in college and beyond.”

Math scores are up 16 points from 1993, largely because SAT-takers took advanced math and science courses, such as chemistry, physics and calculus, the College Board said in its report yesterday.

Overall, 45 percent of SAT-takers had taken high school precalculus, up from 33 percent in 1993. Among Asian students, 59 percent took precalculus and 43 percent took calculus, which was a significant reason for increases in the SAT’s average math score, the report said.

By contrast, the percentage of SAT-takers who had a grammar course in high school dropped from 83 percent to 70 percent during the past decade. The percentage of high schoolers taking English composition had dropped from 79 percent to 66 percent since 1993.

The SAT, used as a college admissions factor, was called the Scholastic Aptitude Test. But the College Board revised the test significantly in 1995, changing the “A” in SAT to “Assessment,” on grounds there was some doubt the test could actually measure aptitude for learning.

The three-hour SAT is still divided into math and verbal sections, with a maximum possible score of 800 on each.

Like the pre-1995 test, the math section still measures a student’s arithmetic, algebra and geometry skills. The board’s most controversial change was to drop its prohibition of calculators for the math questions. Instead of constituting all multiple-choice questions, the current test requires students to give some answers on their own.

The verbal section was significantly changed in 1995. A Test of Standard Written English was dropped, including 30 minutes of grammar and punctuation questions. The reading comprehension section was changed to “critical reading,” with fewer but longer passages to read — some to be compared and contrasted.

Fill-in-the-blank questions were shortened and questions requiring students to choose the opposite meaning of words were eliminated.

Proponents argued the changes were necessary because of rapid growth of the non-English-speaking student population in U.S. high schools, but critics said the SAT verbal section was “dumbed down” because schools had failed to teach adequate literacy and verbal skills.

In its report, the College Board said 38 percent of SAT-takers this year were students who are the first members of their family to go to college. The number of minority students taking the SAT “is at an all-time high of 36 percent, up one percentage point from last year and six points from 10 years ago,” the report said.

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