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Students' Scores On College Tests Remain Stable

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For the second straight year, the scores of high-school seniors taking the two major college-admissions tests have shown little statistical variation from the previous year.

But testing officials last week saw encouraging signs in the rising number of students taking the exams and in the continuing gains of minority students.

Donald H. Stewart, president of the College Board, which administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test, said the larger pool of test-takers was significant in assessing the results because "greater numbers of test-takers usually mean lower averages."

He added that the increasing numbers taking the exams, particularly among minorities, "means that a great many more students are actually considering going to college."

Another encouraging sign in the data was that the sat scores of prospective teachers reached a record high.

In releasing their annual testing data last week, officials of both the College Board and the American College Testing program attributed the higher minority scores in part to the increasing number of minority students taking strengthened core curricula.

The average score on the mathematics portion of the sat rose by a point, to 476 out of a possible 800. But scores on the verbal section of the test fell by a point, to 430 out of 800.

The average composite score on the act fell by a tenth of a point--to 18.7 on a scale of 1 to 35--continuing a pattern of stability evident since the mid-1970's, program officials said.

Act scores for black, Hispanic, American Indian, and Asian American students rose for the third straight year. Black students' scores on the sat have risen by more than 20 percent since 1977, more than those of any other ethnic group, according to Mr. Stewart.

Both testing organizations also reported that the number of test-takers indicating they planned to major in education increased, and that their average scores, while lower than the national average, rose last year.

These trends are probably related to efforts by the states to increase the status and salaries of teachers, said Robert G. Cameron, executive director of research and development for the College Board.

'Holding Ground'

The act primarily serves students in the Midwest and the South, where many public colleges and universities require it for admission. Unlike the sat, the act measures student performance in natural science and social studies, as well as in English and math.

The sat, developed by the Educational Testing Service, is used primarily in the Northeast and on the West coast, and is favored by many private higher-education institutions as an admissions standard.

During the past year, however, a number of private institutions, such as Middlebury College, have dropped their use of the sat in admission decisions.

The test scores have also been used by some education observers--inappropriately according to critics--as a measure of the health of the education system. In a statement last week, U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett said the results suggest that the school-reform movement may have stalled.

"Holding ground is better than losing ground, but we still see an insufficient payoff for what we've invested in education," Mr. Bennett said. "We need better results."

But Mr. Bennett called the rise in the number of students taking the exams "good news."

A total of 1,080,426 seniors took the sat last year, 80,000 more than the previous year; 777,444 seniors took the act, an increase of nearly 48,000.

The rise of nearly 8 percent in the number of sat-takers was substantially higher than expected, said Mr. Cameron of the College Board, since the number of 17-year-olds rose by only about 2 percent last year.

He added that the increase in the number of minority test-takers was a reversal of past trends, perhaps indicating that more black students would attend college this fall.

"They have been declining slightly in numbers and proportion," Mr. Cameron said. "This may indicate a turnaround in minority enrollment."

Minority Achievement

The minority students who took the tests last year also scored better than those in past years, although their average scores still trailed national averages, Mr. Cameron said. The average verbal sat score for black students rose to 351--up from 342 in 1985, the last year for which figures are available. The average math score rose one point, to 377.

On the act, black students' composite scores rose from 13 in 1986 to 13.4, while scores for Mexican-Americans rose from 15.2 to 15.4, and those for Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics rose from 16.5 to 16.9.

These increases are related, said Samuel D. Cargile, director of the act's office of minority education, to the fact that more minority students are taking "core curricula" that include four years of English and three years each of math, science, and social studies.

The act found that students who had taken such a core curriculum scored, on average, nearly four points higher than students who had taken less than the core, Mr. Cargile noted.

"Over the past several years, the proportion of act-tested students from minority groups taking a core high-school curriculum has increased noticeably," he said.

"It is likely that these increased enrollments in core curricula, along with such other factors as students' motivation and the recent emphasis on academic development by the schools, are associated with the increase in average act composite scores for minority students," he added.

Similarly, the College Board, which for the first time surveyed the academic background of test-takers last year, found that those who had taken more advanced courses in English, math, and science tended to score higher on the exam.

"There is no guarantee that the study of physics will increase one's test scores," said Mr. Cameron. "But the relationship [between courses taken and scores] tends to be linear and very strong."

That relationship also helps explain the fact that women's average math score was 23 points below the national average, while men's was 24 points above the national average, he said. The student data revealed that although more women than men took the sat, men outnumbered women in advanced math classes, such as trigonometry and calculus.

Prospective Teachers

Both organizations also reported that education is now the fifth most popular intended major among test-takers.

Among those who took the act, 8 percent said they planned to study education in college, up from 7 percent a year ago. The average composite score for these prospective teachers remained the same as the previous year's, at 17.6.

The sat scores of prospective teachers, on the other hand, reached a new high of 408 on the verbal section and 437 in math.

Some 6 percent of sat takers said they planned to study education.

Other findings of the testing organizations included:

Average scores on the act's English, mathematics, and social-studies assessments each fell by a tenth of a point over the past year, while the average score on the natural-sciences portion of the test remained the same. The average English score was 18.5; math, 17.2; social studies, 17.5; and natural sciences, 21.4.

The number of students taking the College Board's achievement tests--14 one-hour tests in specific subject areas--rose by 4 percent, to 200,000, and the average scores increased by 4 points, to 544 out of 800. For only the second time, more women than men took achievement tests, the board reported.

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