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S.A.T. Verbal Scores Rise for First Time Since 1985

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WASHINGTON--Reversing recent downward trends, average verbal scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test rose last year for the first time since 1985, and average mathematics scores also increased.

Releasing the college-admission test scores, which have become a controversial measure of student performance, officials from the College Board said here last month that the average verbal score for the high school class of 1992 was 423 out of 800, 1 point over last year's record low, and that the average math score was 476 out of 800, 2 points above last year's average and 10 points ahead of the record low of 1981.

Donald M. Stewart, the president of the College Board, defended the use of the S.A.T. scores as an "important barometer'' of college-bound students' academic performance and said this year's report represents a hopeful sign.

"I'm encouraged by this year's results and hope they start an upward trend that puts the score declines of the 1980's behind us,'' he said. "One or two points may not seem like much, but each point is meaningful on a test taken by more than a million students who represent roughly two-thirds of all entering college freshmen.''

Mr. Stewart also pointed out that the proportion of test-takers who were members of minority groups--29 percent--reached an all-time high, and that scores rose for most ethnic groups.

In addition, he noted, students also reported taking more academic coursework, but grade inflation appears to be on the rise.

The board president also cautioned that the results show that urban and rural students lag far behind their suburban and small-city peers in performance on the test.

"Many students in rural and urban America are being left behind in a society that has few jobs for the undereducated and unskilled,'' he said.

Minority Students' Scores

Sponsored by the College Board and administered by the Educational Testing Service, the S.A.T. is used primarily by colleges and universities on the East and West Coasts, and by many selective higher-education institutions, in considering candidates for admission.

Although the test scores have been used as a measure of overall school quality, College Board officials and many educators caution against that practice. They note that the test-taking population represents a self-selected pool of college-bound students, not a representative sample of all high school seniors.

Nevertheless, Mr. Stewart said, the SAT data can show trends over time, since the 200-to-800-point scale remains constant from year to year.

For the class of 1992, 1,034,131 students took the SAT, a slight increase over 1991. The total represents 42 percent of the senior class, an all-time high.

The increase was fueled, in large part, by members of minority groups. The 29 percent of the test-takers who are minorities is a slight increase over the 28 percent in 1991 and nearly double the 15 percent who took the test in 1976.

But while an increase in participation usually signals a drop in average performance, since the increase tends to occur among relatively less-well-prepared students, the average scores of most minority groups increased last year, the board found.

However, the board found, except for Asians--who outperformed all groups in math--all ethnic groups lagged behind whites on the test.

And, the board's report notes, Mexican-Americans' scores dropped 5 points, to 372, on the verbal section, and 2 points, to 425, in math. Black students' scores--which have increased the most sharply of any group since 1976--remained stable in math in 1992, the first time in 15 years that the white-black test-score gap has not narrowed.

Board officials also noted that students from large cities and rural areas, regardless of race, scored well below those from other types of communities. The average verbal score in big cities, 411, was 21 points below the average from suburbs, mid-sized cities, and small cities and towns, while the average urban math score--465--was 20 points lower than that of the other communities.

Meanwhile, rural students--85 percent of whom are white--scored 18 points on the verbal section and 26 points in math below the combined averages of the other localities.

'Where the Challenge Lies'

In analyzing possible reasons for the trends in performance, board officials found that the proportion of students who said they took academic coursework, particularly in math and science, has increased.

Some 41 percent of the class of 1992 reported taking a total of 20 hours or more in six academic subjects in high school, a slight increase over 1991 and 7 percentage points higher than in 1987. Such students, the report notes, scored 47 and 50 points above national averages in verbal and math, respectively.

But, it found, the proportion of students who took four years of English dropped to 83 percent last year from 88 percent in 1987.

"This is where the challenge lies,'' said Mr. Stewart. "We need to get students taking solid academic courses so they are better prepared for college-level work.''

He noted, however, that despite the increase in course-taking, the SAT data also offer evidence that students may not be held to high academic standards.

The overall grade-point average for the class of 1992 was 3.12 on a 4.0 scale, up from 3.10 last year and 3.07 in 1987--a period when average SAT scores dropped.

"This suggests a return to the grade inflation of the 1970's,'' said Robert G. Cameron, a senior research associate for the College Board.

Copies of the board's report, "College-Bound Seniors: 1992 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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