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Good News, Bad News

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The latest batch of SAT and ACT test results contains both good and bad news. The good news is that the gap between the scores of men and women is gradually narrowing. The bad news is that while the scores of women are rising, those of men are slipping.

Thanks to the gains by women, the average math score on the SAT, now officially known as the Scholastic Assessment Test, and the composite mean score on the American College Testing Assessment rose this year. Testing officials attributed the rise to more women taking advanced mathematics and science courses.

Overall, testing officials were pleased with the results, which were released in August, but they noted that there was still room for improvement. "We may be witnessing a gradual turnaround in academic study,'' said Donald Stewart, president of the College Board, which sponsors the SAT. "But we still have a long way to go.''

This year's average SAT math score, for example, increased one point, to 479 on the test's 200 to 800 scale. But while the average math score for women rose three points to 460, the men's average fell one point to 501. That 41-point gap is the smallest it has been since 1971.

Thirty-four percent of women who took the SAT 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 score on the SAT verbal section also went up this year, to 421 from 420 in 1993. But men averaged 425, down from 428 last year, so consequently the average verbal score for all test-takers fell one point to 423. African-American women outscored their male counterparts on the verbal section by six points.

More than one million students take the SAT every year. This year, 53 percent of the 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.

College Board officials said an increased number of test-takers could be partially responsible for the decline in the average verbal score. Since 1980, the proportion of high school graduates taking the SAT has grown from 33 percent to 42 percent; an increase in the number of test-takers leads to downward pressure on the scores, according to Stewart.

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,'' Stewart said. The percentage of students taking English courses for four or more years has dropped, a factor that could also help explain the falling verbal scores.

Meanwhile, the mean composite score on the ACT, which was taken this year by 890,000 students, increased to 20.8 on a scale of one to 36, up from 20.7 last year.

As with the SAT, testing officials linked the ACT gain to increased college-preparatory course work, 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 ACT.

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