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Average Scores on A.C.T. and S.A.T. Again Dip Slightly or Remain Stagnant

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Average scores on the two major college-entrance examinations remained steady or dipped slightly during the last academic year, according to data released last week.

The average verbal score for high-school seniors taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test declined from the previous year, as did the average composite score for the American College Testing program.

Meanwhile, black test-takers did not post the kinds of gains they had made in recent years on both the sat and the act And while some other minority groups continued to show gains on the sat, only Asian-Americans showed an increase on the act

On the sat, the average verbal score fell one point, to 427 out of a possible 800. It was the third year in a row the verbal score decreased. The average score on the mathematics portion was 476 out of 800, the same as it had been the previous two years.

The average act composite score for the program's four subject areas was 18.6, on a scale of 1 to 36, representing a decrease of 0.2 point from 1988. Average scores dipped by 0.1 point on the English test (to 18.4) and the math test (to 17.1) and by 0.2 point on the social-studies test (to 17.2) and the natural-sciences test (to 21.2).

Robert G. Cameron, director of research and development for the College Board, which sponsors the sat, downplayed the significance of the decline in the exam's average verbal score.

"A one-point drop in verbal in any one year is not great news, but one should not become alarmed by that small a change," he maintained.

U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos said the gains posted by some minority groups were encouraging. But, he said, the overall decline in performance on the two tests is a "grim reminder" of the need to restructure the nation's elementary and secondary schools.

"Today's college-bound students are still scoring significantly below those of 20 years ago," the Secretary said in a statement. "This is especially disheartening at the end of a decade marked by substantial education-reform efforts."

Fewer Take S.A.T.

The decline in the sat verbal score came despite a 4 percent drop in the number of students taking the exam. A drop in the number of test-takers usually results in an increase in average scores.

For the past several years, the number of sat-takers had increased despite a drop in the number of 17-year-olds in the nation. The College Board concluded from those figures that a greater proportion of high-school seniors was aspiring to college. Now, the decrease in the number of test-takers may be an indication of the opposite trend, experts said.

"This would seem to suggest that students are cooling out on four-year colleges," Mr. Cameron said. "That could be due to the perceptions of parents and students about college costs."

The sat, developed and administered by the Educational Testing Service, is used most often by colleges and universities in the Northeast and on the West Coast, including many of the more selective private institutions in the country. Approximately 1.1 million high-school seniors take the test each year.

The act predominates in the Midwest and South, where many public colleges and universities require it for admission. The number of seniors who took the act in the past school year increased by 1.5 percent, to 855,000, over the previous year.

Some Gains by Minorities

After several years of increases, the average verbal score for black students who took the sat declined in 1989, from 353 to 351, while their average math score increased by two points, to 386. Since 1979, blacks have gained 21 points on the verbal portion and 28 points on the math test.

Non-Hispanic white students gained one point this year on the sat verbal test, averaging 446, and on the math test, for an average of 491. Asian-Americans registered gains of one point on the verbal section, to 409, and three points on the math portion, to 525. Mexican-Americans posted a decrease of one point on the verbal test, to 381, but gained two points in math, to 430.

Bill Honig, California's superintendent of public instruction, said the sat results for his state were promising, because whites, blacks, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics all posted gains, even though the state's average combined score declined by two points, to 906.

"A larger percentage of traditionally lower-scoring groups are taking the test, which lowers statewide averages even though their scores are rising rapidly," Mr. Honig said.

Nationally, the proportion of sat-takers belonging to minority groups has more than doubled over the past 17 years, from 11 percent in 1973 to 25 percent in 1989.

On the act, the national composite score for black students remained unchanged for 1989, at 13.6, while the score for non-Hispanic whites declined by 0.2 point, to 19.4. Asian-Americans' composite score increased by 0.1 point, to 20.0.

Composite scores on the act for other groups included:

Mexican-Americans, 15.4, a decrease of 0.3 point;

American Indians, 14.7, a decrease of 0.2 point; and

Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and other Hispanics, 17.0, a drop of 0.1 point.

This fall, the American College Testing program will begin administering an "enhanced" act that will include tests in English, mathematics, reading, and science reasoning. The new test will focus on higher-order learning skills, such as advanced math abilities and reasoning skills in reading and science.

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