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Women Found To Be Making Gains On College-Entrance Exam Scores

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The gap in college-entrance exam scores of men and women is narrowing, the latest S.A.T. and A.C.T. results show.

Some gains were made on both the Scholastic Assessment Test and the American College Testing Assessment, the two most widely administered college-admissions exams, but mostly by women of all ethnic groups. Testing officials attributed the higher scores to more women taking advanced mathematics and science courses.

Officials said they were pleased with the test results, which were released late last month, but noted that there was still room for improvement. "We may be witnessing a gradual turnaround in academic study," said Donald M. Stewart, the president of the College Board, which sponsors the S.A.T. "But we still have a long way to go."

This year's average S.A.T. math score, for example, increased 1 point, to 479 on the test's 200 to 800 scale, continuing a 13-year rise. But the average score for women rose 3 points on the math section to 460, while the men's average fell 1 point to 501. That 41-point gap is the smallest it has been since 1971.

Thirty-four percent of women who took the S.A.T. this year had taken precalculus, 19 percent had taken calculus, and 41 percent had taken physics, compared with 1987 levels of 25 percent, 15 percent, and 34 percent, respectively.

Women's average S.A.T. verbal score also went up this year, to 421 from 420 in 1993. Black women outscored their male counterparts by 6 points on the verbal portion of the test. (See chart.)

But men averaged 425, down from 428 the previous year, and the verbal average for both men and women consequently fell 1 point to 423.

College Board officials said an increased number of test-takers could be partially responsible for the decline.

Scoring Ups and Downs

Since 1980, the proportion of high school graduates taking the S.A.T. has grown from 33 percent to 42 percent. Since higher-achieving students usually take the exam, an increased number of test-takers would lead to downward pressure on the scores, Mr. Stewart said.

Any downward pressure on math results may have been "offset by a rise in academic study and by the significant strides women of all ethnic backgrounds have made in math and science study," Mr. Stewart said.

The percentage of students taking English courses for four or more years has dropped, a factor that could explain the falling S.A.T. verbal scores.

More than one million students take the S.A.T. every year. This year, 53 percent of test-takers were women, and a record 31 percent were minorities. Because of the large volume of students taking the test, any change in average scores is considered statistically significant.

The S.A.T. underwent considerable changes in March, but only a relative handful of students in this year's sample took the new exam, called the S.A.T. I: Reasoning Test. The revamped S.A.T. tries to put more emphasis on critical reading skills, application of concepts, and interpretation of data.

The College Board also plans to "recenter" the scoring of the test so that averages will be closer to 500, but that will not happen until 1996. (See Education Week, June 22, 1994.)

A.C.T. Correlation

The mean composite score on the A.C.T., which was taken this year by 890,000 students and is more commonly administered in the Midwest, increased this year to 20.8 on a scale of 1 to 36. Last year's mean was 20.7.

As with the S.A.T., officials of the A.C.T. program linked gains to increased college-preparatory coursework, primarily by women.

Women, who averaged 20.7 this year, performed only slightly below men, who scored 20.9. That is the smallest male-female scoring difference in the history of the A.C.T.

"The data indicate that greater numbers of females are electing advanced science and math courses," said Richard L. Ferguson, the president of the A.C.T.

For the first time, for example, women taking the A.C.T. reported studying algebra II and chemistry in equal percentages as men.

Despite the gains, some believe the exams are biased against women and minority groups.

Questions of Bias

"At the current pace, it will take another 25 years to eliminate the gender gap," said Pamela Zappardino, the executive director of FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based organization that promotes equitable testing.

FairTest officials said that studies by the Educational Testing Service, which administers the S.A.T., have found that women score lower than men of comparable academic performance and that the new S.A.T. I: Reasoning Test will do little to change the gender gap.

Bob Schaeffer, the public education director for FairTest, recommended that colleges and universities stop requiring applicants to submit test scores.

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