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College-Test Scores Up For Minorities; Overall Marks Static

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Blacks and other minority students posted substantial one-year gains on 1988 standardized college-entrance tests, test officials reported last week, continuing the upward swing in their performance on the tests over the past decade.

But overall national averages on the two major standardized tests remained essentially flat for the third straight year.

The national average score attained by high-school seniors taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test dipped slightly from 1987, while the average composite score for the American College Testing program showed a small increase, according to results released by the testing organizations last week.

The static character of the test scores over the past three years--after substantial improvements in the early 1980's--evoked sharply divided reactions from educators.

Outgoing Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, for example, argued that the lack of an increase proved that the movement for education reform had stalled.

But others, including Donald M. Stewart, president of the College Board, saw progress in the fact that scores were steady even though more students were taking the tests. The College Board administers the sat

Both testing agencies reported increases over last year in the numbers of students participating.

Math, Verbal Scores

The national average score on the mathematics portion of the sat stayed the same as last year at 476, out of a possible 800. But the average verbal score fell by two points, to 428 out of 800.

The national average act composite score was 18.8, on a scale of 1 to 35. That represents an increase of 0.1 point from the 1987 average. The act consists of four tests measuring abilities in English, mathematics, social studies, and natural sciences.

Average scores on the mathematics (18.5) and natural sciences (21.4) tests showed no change from last year. The average on the English test was up 0.1 point to 18.5, while the average for social studies dropped 0.1 to 17.4.

The sat, developed by the Educational Testing Service, is used most often by schools in the Northeast and on the West Coast, and by many of the more selective private institutions across the country.

The act is taken most frequently by students from Midwestern and Southern states, where many public colleges and universities require it for admission.

Minority Gains

Blacks gained 7 points on the math portion of the sat, for a score of 384, and 2 points on the verbal test, for a score of 353. Between 1978 and 1988, the scores for black students have risen 30 points on the math test and 21 points on the verbal test, the College Board reported.

On the act test, the national average for blacks continued a four-year upward trend. Black students scored a composite 13.6, up 0.2 over 1987 and a full point over the 1985 level.

Other minority groups also posted gains. On the sat, the average math score for Mexican-Americans was up 4 points, while the verbal score was up 3 points. Mexican-Americans have gained 26 points on the math portion and 12 points on the verbal portion in the past 10 years.

Asian-Americans, American Indians, and Puerto Ricans have also achieved significant increases in the past decade, the College Board said.

White students' scores on the act remain unchanged from last year, at a composite of 19.6. On the sat, whites dropped 2 points to 445 on the verbal section of the test, but gained 1 point, to 490, on the mathematics section.

Mixed Reactions

On his last day in office, Mr. Bennett expressed sharp disappointment at the test results.

"No medal for America in this news," he said. "I said in April that the 'absolute level at which improvements are taking place is unacceptably low.' Today it's a bit lower, and still not acceptable."

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, offered a similar reaction. "The data show that our top students are not moving forward and are not where they should be academically," he said.

But some educators saw hope in the continued test gains shown by minority students.

And Mr. Stewart said he was encouraged by the steady overall scores, because a larger pool of test-takers usually generates lower test averages. "We're pleased there is as much stability as there is," he said.

"Despite the increased number of minorities, the scores are not going down," he added, "In fact, those scores are going up, which means something is going right with the educational movement."

Scott D. Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, speculated that scores might have shown more improvement if there had been fewer test-takers.

"But this society is better off to have 5 percent more aspiring to college," he said. "There is a social positive that comes out of a statistical negative."

Core Curriculum

Test officials said the results also indicated that students who take a "core curriculum" of English, math, science and social studies do better on standardized tests than those who do not. The act scores of students who took such core courses averaged 2.8 to 5.4 points above the scores of other students.

Richard L. Ferguson, the president of the act, said the results may reflect the greater core-curriculum requirements for high-school graduation set by many states in recent years.

This year, 52 percent of act students reported taking four years of English and three years each of mathematics, social studies, and natural sciences--up from 47 percent in 1987 and 36 percent in 1986.

Sexual Differences

The test results also revealed substantial differences in scores according to sex.

Women scored 422 on the verbal section of the sat, while men scored 435. Women scored 455 on the math portion, compared with 498 for men.

Men continue to perform better than women on all sections of the act except for English, where women this year averaged a score of 19 and men 18.

Average sat math scores for women in the Class of 1988 rose by two points, but their verbal scores fell by three points. Men scored two points lower in math than in the previous year, while their average on the verbal test stayed the same.

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