9-Point Jump in S.A.T. Scores Is Highest in 22 Years
The average combined score of graduating high-school students on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, one of the two standardized examinations most often required for admission to the nation's colleges, jumped 9 points this year, the sharpest single-year gain since 1963, the College Board announced last week.
But the average composite score on the other major college-admissions test, the American College Testing Assessment, remained nearly stable, according to the American College Testing Program, which also released its 1985 test results last week.
At a press conference in New York City, College Board officials reported that the average scores on the sat rose 5 points on the verbal section, to 431, and 4 points on the mathematics section, to 475. The4test is graded on a scale of 200 to 800.
The board also noted a "disturbing" decrease in the number of black students taking the examination, but said the decline did not affect overall test averages.
On the same day, the American College Testing Program announced from its headquarters in Iowa City, Iowa, that the average act composite score rose 0.1 percentage points, from 18.5 to 18.6. The assessment, graded on a scale of 1 to 36, includes tests in English, mathematics, natural sciences, and social studies.
Each examination was taken by approximately 1 million students in the high-school graduating class of 1985. Both included questionnaires from which such characteristics as college and career goals, grade-point average, and ethnic background were determined.
The act primarily serves students and colleges in 28 states in the Midwest, South, and West, where many public colleges and universities require the test for admission. The sat, an admissions tool for most private higher-education institutions, is used more extensively by students and colleges in the East and on the West Coast.
Reforms Paid Off
For the sat, developed and administered by the Educational Testing Service, this year's gains mark the fourth consecutive year in which at least either the verbal or the mathematics scores have improved.
The four-year upswing follows a 17-year decline in sat scores from 1964 to 1980 and 1981, when they reached their lowest mark on record. With this year's scores, the combined average for the verbal and mathematics sections has now re-turned to its 1975 level.
George H. Hanford, president of the College Board, said the recent upward trend indicates that efforts to improve high-school education, begun in the mid-1970's and accelerated by recent education-reform initiatives, "have begun to pay off."
He said the upswing in test scores suggests not only that "instruction in the schools has been improving," but also that "high-school students are giving greater attention to academic study."
This year's test gains, Mr. Hanford noted, occurred even though the number taking the sat increased by more than 12,600, a factor that would normally tend to lower average scores.
'Broader Phenomenon' Seen
Frank B. Womer, professor of education at the University of Michigan and director of the Michigan School Testing Service, agreed that the increase in sat scores represents4"more than a modest gain."
Because it follows a smaller series of increases over the past several years, Mr. Womer said, it probably represents "a general turnaround in certain levels of abilities among students."
But he advised caution in analyzing the trend. "I don't think we can credit all of this automatically to schools, any more than I thought the schools were to blame automatically when scores were going down," said Mr. Womer. "I think this represents a much broader phenomenon in society, that educational excellence is more respected now than it was for a period of time."
In contrast, the act's vice president of public affairs, David S. Crockett, said changes in act scores have not been highly significant.
"We're obviously pleased that the scores are heading in the right direction," he said, "but I would not dance in the streets saying it's a sign that the reformation has been successful." act scores have remained relatively stable for almost a decade, he noted, after declining steadily from 1970 to 1976.
But statistically, Mr. Crockett said, there is not much difference between the average gains recorded this year on the act and the sat
"Their increase was a little over 1 percent and ours was a little less than half a percent," he said. "So theirs went up a little more than ours, but we're still not talking about huge differences."
The scoring changes in the four subjects measured by the act varied. The average on the English section remained stable at 18.1, natural sciences rose from 21.0 to 21.2, and social studies rose from 17.4 to 17.5. The average mathematics score fell from 17.3 to 17.2.
All minority groups and both sexes showed gains in sat scores this year, with the most dramatic gains among Puerto Rican students, whose average scores rose 10 points.
But the percentage of blacks taking the exam dropped from 9.1 percent of all test-takers in 1984 to 8.9 percent in 1985. The decline means that some 2,000 fewer black students took the sat last year, according to College Board officials.
"When this fall-off in numbers is coupled with other data we have gathered on the educational status of blacks," Mr. Hanford said, "the decline is disturbing."
In a study released earlier this year, "Equality and Excellence: The Educational Status of Black Ameri-cans," the board reported that college attendance and completion rates of blacks have dropped since 1975, despite the fact that their high-school graduation rates have improved over the past two decades.
Blacks also accounted for about 8.9 percent of act test-takers last year. But that proportion has remained relatively constant for the act since 1980. The average scores for blacks, according to act officials, did not change significantly between 1984 and 1985.
On both tests, the average total scores for black students continued to trail those of all other ethnic groups. Their average on the sat was 346 on the verbal section and 376 on the mathematics section, compared with an average for whites of 449 on the verbal section and 491 on the math section.
The average for blacks on the act was 13.3 on the English section and 9.9 on the math. For whites, it was 18.8 in English and 18.0 in math.
The percentage of minority students in general taking the sat climbed to an all-time high of 20 percent this year, primarily due to the greater number of Asian-American students taking the exam. But the percentage of minority participants remained about the same for the act
Asian Americans continued to outperform other students in mathematics on both tests. Their average math score was 26 points higher than that of whites on the sat and 2.4 percentage points higher on the act
Women--who accounted for about 52 percent of sat test-takers and 54 percent of act test-takers--scored lower than men on both exams.
But results from the two tests were contradictory in verbal-skills assessments. On the sat, men outperformed women on the verbal portion of the test, with average scores of 437 versus 425, but on the act women outperformed men on the English section, with average scores of 18.6 versus 17.6.
Women lagged significantly behind men on the mathematics portions of both tests.
New Career Interests
From responses given on the accompanying questionnaires, both testing agencies noted substantial changes in the academic and career goals of women during the decade. In particular, women are expressing greater interest in business and commerce careers than in the mid-1970's, with the number of female test-takers considering business majors having tripled since 1973, according to the College Board.
And, said Robert G. Cameron, executive director of research and development for the College Board, "women have been reporting much greater increases in the study of math and the physical sciences than men, although men still take an average of one semester more of science and math than women."
The two testing agencies also confirmed that the number of students hoping to complete graduate study continues to rise. act officials attributed part of this increase to a greater percentage of women exel10lpressing interest in professional degrees.
Twelve years ago, noted College Board officials, men were twice as likely as women to have professional-degree aspirations. But this difference, they said, has almost disappeared.
Student interest in education careers, Mr. Cameron said, increased slightly for the second consecutive year, to 4.7 percent, and the scores of students planning to major in education rose 6 points on the verbal section and 7 points on the math section.
The proportion of act test-takers expressing interest in education majors--7 percent--was the same as that recorded in 1984.
Both act and College Board officials said grade inflation, though more prevalent than 15 years ago, has begun to decline. The College Board's Mr. Hanford said the finding may suggest not only that grading standards have become more rigorous but that students are taking more academic courses.
For the ninth consecutive year, students taking the sat reported taking more courses than the previous year's seniors in each of six academic subject areas. Also, a greater number of students had taken honors courses and planned to apply for advanced-placement college credit in all subjects.
The act tried to assess the impact of more rigorous course work on test performance, calculating the difference in the average test scores of students who had taken a "core" of academic courses--including four or more years of English, three or more years of mathematics, three or more years of natural sciences, and three or more years of social studies--and those who had not.
Students who had taken a "core" curriculum, the test officials found, performed significantly better in all four subject areas, with an average composite score of 21.0 versus 17.2. The largest performance gap between the two groups of students was in mathematics.
The act also reported a statistical correlation between school size and test performance. Test-takers from very small and very large high schools, they said, did not fare as well as their peers. Those from schools with 199 or fewer students or 900 or more students scored below the national average on the act, while those from schools with 200 to 899 students scored above the national average.
The median family income reported by students taking the sat in 1985 rose by 6 percent, from $30,400 to $32,200. Median income of population groups ranged from a low of $17,100 for black families to a high of $34,700 for white families.
The College Board's college-scholarship service estimates that only 27 percent of test-takers' families are able to pay fully the average annual cost of education at public four-year institutions, and only 12 percent can fully afford the cost of private four-year colleges. These percentages may be underestimated because of students' inability to reflect adequately their families' assets, board officials said.