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SAT Verbal Scores Continue Slide To Lowest Level Since 1980 and 1981

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By Robert Rothman

Average verbal scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test declined this year for the fourth straight year, to their lowest level in a decade, while mathematics scores remained flat, the College Board reported last week.

The average verbal score fell 3 points, it found, to 424 out of a possible 800--the all-time low last recorded in 1980 and 1981. Math scores stayed at 476 out of a possible 800, the same level recorded each year since 1987.

The board also found that the number of students taking the college-admission test declined by 6 percent, slightly more than the drop in the college-age population, and that minorities continued to take the test in increasing numbers.

But unlike in past years, when minorities' scores showed steady improvement, the results in 1990 were mixed, according to the board. Native Americans' and Asian Americans' scores increased over the past year, it found, while overall scores for blacks remained the same and Hispanics' scores declined.

Donald M. Stewart, president of the College Board, called the drop in verbal scores "disturbing but not particularly surprising," in light of recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In a report issued in June, NAEP found that a national sample of 17-year-olds spent little time reading in school or for homework, and considerably more time watching television.

"Students must pay less attention to video games and music videos and begin to read more," Mr. Stewart said. "Reading is in danger of becoming a 'lost art' among too many American students--and that would be a national tragedy."

Bill Honig, California's superintendent of public instruction, who has in the past dissented from the gloomy assessment of the test results, agreed last week that the scores represented bad news.

"There is a problem with reading," he said.

The SAT, developed and administered by the Educational Testing Service, is taken primarily by students from the Northeast and the West Coast, and is used for admissions by many of the most selective colleges and universities.

Results from the American College Testing Program test, which is taken by students from the Midwest and the South, are expected to be released next week.

The SAT report found that, in addition to the drop in scores, the number of college-bound high-school seniors who took the admission test dropped to 1,025,523 in 1990, 6 percent fewer than the number who took the test in 1989.

In addition, the board found, the number of students who took one or more of the College Board's Achievement Tests also declined by 6 percent, to 200,225. Achievement Tests, which measure student perce in a range of academicts, are often required for admission to selective colleges and universities.

The declines in the test-taking population signal that colleges and universities may feel the drop in the number of 17-year-olds, according to Robert G. Cameron, executive director for research and development for the College Board.

"Demographics has finally caught up with the test-taking population," he said.

The decline in the number of Achievement Test takers, Mr. Cameron added, could indicate that students who may in the past have applied to selective colleges may be considering public institutions instead.

"College costs may be at a level to make parents and students look for the lower-cost public sector," he said.

In analyzing the results, Mr. Cameron noted that ethnic minorities, who tend to perform less well than whites on the SAT, were taking the test in increasing proportions.

Minority students constituted 27 percent of the test-takers in 1990, up from 25 percent in 1989, the board found. Of this year's test-takers, 10 percent were black, 8 percent Asian American, 6 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Native American, and 2 percent other ethnic group.

But while Native American students posted the largest gains over the past year--4 points in verbal scores and 9 points in math--black students fell 1 point in math, and Hispanics other than Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans dropped 6 points on the verbal portion and 2 points in math.

In addition, the number of seniors whose primary language is other than English has also ind since 1987, Mr. Cameron pointed out.

In 1990, 9 percent of seniors said they learned both English and another language, up from 8 percent in 1987, and 7 percent said they first learned a language other than English, compared with 5 percent in 1987.

"That may have some small bearing on the decline in verbal skills, Mr. Cameron said.

An encouraging sign, he noted, is that the proportion of seniors who reported taking 20 or more academic courses increased slightly, to 40 percent. Such students had SAT scores 50 points higher than the national average on both the verbal and math sections of the test, he said.

In other findings, the College Board reported that:

Women's average math performance increased by 1 point, to 455, matching their 1988 level. Since 1976, women's math performance has increased by 9 points, compared with a 2-point gain for men.

Although men tend to take more math and science courses than women, the gap is narrowing. While the percentage of men who took four or more years of math remained steady, at 68 percent, the proportion of women increased by 1 percentage point, to 62 percent. In addition, 36 percent of women test-takers said they took four or more years of the sciences in 1990, 2 percentage points more than in 1989.

The proportion of students whose parents had no more than a high-school diploma or who did not graduate from high school increased in 1990. Among the 1990 seniors, the board found, 43 percent were from such families, compared with 41 percent in 1989.

The average SAT scores for the 7 percent of students who said they intended to major in education in college increased by 2 points in 1990. But their average scores, 406 on the verbal section and 442 for math, remained below the national average.

Copies of the College Board's report, "College-Bound Seniors: 1990 Profile of SAT and Achievement Test Takers," are available free of charge from the College Board, Box AF, 45 Columbus Ave., New York, N.Y. 10023-6992.

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