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SAT, ACT Scores Up, But Racial Gaps Remain

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In what has become an annual barometer of high school achievement, the release of results from the two major college-admissions tests showed overall improvements in 1996.

But the results announced last month continued to reveal racial and gender discrepancies in performance on both the ACT Assessment and the SAT. Some educators also expressed concern about the newly "recentered" scores for the SAT I: Reasoning Test, the official name of the most widely used college-entrance exam.

This year's SAT is the first to reflect the recalibration of scores that re-established 500 as the average on the test's scale of 200 to 800 points.

Though some experts argue that the new scale does not provide an accurate measure of performance, the New York City-based College Board, which sponsors the SAT, defends the modification.

The shift became necessary because it had become harder to compare and interpret scores as more students took the test each year and the average national score fell below the midpoint of the scale, College Board officials say.

Gender, Racial Gaps

The average math SAT score among the roughly 1.1 million seniors who took the test this year was 508, up from 506 last year; the average verbal score was 505, a 1-point increase. All previous scores have been recentered to allow comparisons.

But gaps persist between the genders in the math section and between racial and ethnic groups in both sections of the SAT. The average verbal score of women rose 1 point from last year, to 503, and their average math score increased by 2 points, to 492. Men averaged 507 and 527 on verbal and math respectively, up 2 points each from last year.

White students scored an average of 526 on the verbal and 523 on the math, while black students scored an average of 434 on the verbal section and 422 on the math portion; and Native American students averaged 483 on the verbal and 477 on the math.

Students in the three categories of Hispanic or Latino backgrounds also lagged behind the average on both the math and verbal sections.

And Asian-American students scored an average of 496 on the verbal, while surpassing all other ethnic groups with an average of 558 on the math.

From the survey of course-taking included in the SAT, College Board officials could point to one encouraging sign that crossed racial boundaries: Students are taking tougher classes. Academic coursework as measured by years of study has increased for all groups over the past 10 years, officials said.

"More students are looking for harder work, and wanting to be better prepared," said Donald M. Stewart, the president of the College Board.

Debate on Recentering

The recentering of the SAT scores has been contentious since it was announced in 1994.

The move to make the average score 500 for both verbal and math obscured the fact that verbal scores have repeatedly lagged behind math, said Diane S. Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University in New York City and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"It makes it seem now as though poor student performance in verbal is the same as fine student performance in math," she said. "They basically destroyed the idea of standards by what they've done in the verbal area."

Mr. Stewart disagreed, arguing that the realignment was necessary.

"We reflect today's college-going population, not the population of 1941," he said, referring to the year when the scale was last centered.

"Our instrument is sound," Mr. Stewart added. "It had nothing to do with making anyone look good."

ACT Also Up

Administrators of the ACT Assessment Test also reported slightly higher scores this year, from a national composite average of 20.8 in 1995 to 20.9 this year, on a scale of 1 to 36.

This year's results for the 925,000 high school graduates who took the test marked the fourth year in a row that scores have increased.

While the average scores for men remained steady from last year at 21.0, women improved one-tenth of a point, to 20.8. Native American test-takers showed the most noteworthy improvement, increasing their test-participation levels and boosting their average scores over the past four years from 18.1 in 1992 to 18.8 in 1996.

A steadily increasing number of students also report taking a "core curriculum" in high school, to which ACT, Inc., the Iowa City-based company that sponsors the test, attributes higher scores.

"The more coursework students take, the more committed they are, and their parents and guidance counselors, to moving to a higher level," said ACT Inc. President Richard L. Ferguson.

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