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Math Scores Rise, Verbal Scores Stay Flat on SAT, ACT

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An increase in the use of classroom technology and a nationwide focus on math course requirements are two likely reasons why average math scores rose this year on both the sat and the ACT, test experts said.

But verbal scores on both college-entrance exams remained stagnant, and some observers said the results highlight a need for greater attention to the growing number of test-takers who speak English as a second language.

"You can't look at the statistics without looking at the demographics," said Seppy Basili, the director of precollege programs for Kaplan Educational Centers, a test-preparation company based in New York City.

Results from both tests were released last month. After five years of small but steady gains, the average score on the mathematics portion of the sat I: Reasoning Test jumped 3 points, to 511, the highest level in 26 years. The average math score on the ACT also increased, from 20.2 to 20.6. The highest possible math score for the sat is 800, and for the ACT, 36.

Average Math and Verbal SAT Scores: 1987 to 1997

"Many more students have been taking more rigorous classes," Gail Burrill, the president of the Reston, Va.-based National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said in explaining the upward trend. "And we've been doing harder math, things we weren't able to do before, because students now have access to technology."

Surveys from both the College Board, the New York City-based organization that sponsors the sat, and the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc. show that rising math scores have corresponded with an increased number of students taking more science and math courses, including more challenging courses in those subjects, such as calculus and physics.

The proportion of high school students taking at least four years of math has increased to 69 percent, from 63 percent in 1987. In the natural sciences, the proportion has risen to 49 percent, from 37 percent a decade ago.

The proportion of high school students taking at least four yearlong English courses, meanwhile, dropped from 88 percent in 1987 to 84 percent in 1997.

In math, the average score for girls has increased by 13 points, to 494, since 1987. That score is still 36 points below that of boys, although the gap has narrowed from 42 points a decade ago.

Changing Demographics

Students scored an average of 505 on the verbal portion of the sat out of a possible 800, the same score as last year. On the English portion of the ACT, students also held steady, at 20.3 out of a possible 36.

A Look at the Class of 1997

Along with SAT scores, the College Board has also released results from a survey of college-bound high school seniors who took the entrance exam this year. Among the findings in the 1997 Profile of College-Bound Seniors:

  • There is evidence of grade inflation across the curriculum. This year's grade average for college-bound SAT takers was 3.22 on a 4-point scale, with an A equal to 4. The average in 1987 was 3.07.
  • Nineteen percent of those SAT takers said they planned to major in a health-related field, more than any other category. The proportion of college-bound seniors planning to major in business dropped from 23 percent in 1987 to 13 percent.
  • Education was listed as the major of choice among 9 percent of the students, compared with 6 percent a decade ago.
  • Students are growing more ambitious academically. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed said they planned to obtain either a doctoral degree or a master's degree, compared with 43 percent a decade ago.
  • The percentage of college-bound SAT takers who are female has risen slightly over the past decade, from 52 percent in 1987 to 54 percent this year.

Eight percent of the high school graduates taking the sat this year reported that English was not their primary language, according to the College Board, compared with 5 percent a decade ago. Overall, these students and other minority students made up nearly one-third of the sat-takers from the Class of 1997, 10 percentage points more than the minority share in 1987.

An increase of 3 percentage points over 10 years in the number of Asian-American and Pacific Islander students taking the sat is particularly notable, Mr. Basili said, because such students have historically performed well on the math portion of the exam but average or below average on the verbal section.

Given the language difficulties of many test-takers, the fact that verbal scores were unchanged may be encouraging, suggested Faith Schullstrom, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, based in Reston, Va.

"When there are more students who speak English as a second language, the nuance of a vocabulary word could affect those students to a higher degree than a math problem," she said. "The fact that [verbal scores] have stayed steady could be an indication of success."

The number of students taking the entrance exams, as well as the percentage of all high school graduates who took the tests, increased this year. More than 1.1 million students took the sat, and almost 960,000 took the ACT.

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