Education

SAT, ACT Scores Stable as Record Numbers Take Exams

By John Gehring — September 05, 2001 3 min read
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SAT and ACT officials say stable scores this year on their college-entrance exams are good news in light of record numbers of test-takers, but they called gaps in scores between racial and ethnic groups a serious problem.

The two testing companies insisted that achievement differences on their exams reflect inequalities in the K-12 school system rather than testing bias, which has long been a charge against such tests.

Results released here last week showed that the average verbal score on the SAT rose by a point this year to 506, out of a possible 800, the highest in more than decade and the first time verbal scores have changed since 1995. Math scores on the test, which is sponsored by the New York City-based College Board, remained at last year’s 30-year high of 514.

View the 2001 results reports for the SAT and the ACT.

SAT officials, in releasing the scores for college-bound seniors in the class of 2001, reported that a record 1.3 million students took the test, which measures students’ math and verbal skills on a scale of 400 to 1600 for the combined sections. One-third of those students were minorities, the largest such share in the test’s history.

Meanwhile, the average national composite score on the ACT remained at 21 for the fifth straight year. This year, 1.1 million students took the ACT—also a record high. The test, which measures math, verbal, and science skills on a 36-point scale, is given by the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc.

The results of both exams reveal that male and female students across all racial and ethnic groups posted higher scores if they had taken advanced-level courses such as calculus.

Gaston Caperton, the College Board’s president, said that differences in scores between racial and ethnic groups should put more pressure on the education system to address the unequal opportunities that many students face.

“The score gaps ... also appear on virtually every measure of achievement, including other standardized tests and classroom grades, and they show up as early as 4th grade,” Mr. Caperton said. “These differences are a powerful illustration of a persistent social problem in our country: inequitable access to high-quality education.”

The Breakdown

African-American students who took the SAT averaged a combined score of 859 this year, a 1-point decrease from last year and a 13-point decrease since 1991. White students on average scored 1060, a 2-point increase from last year and a 39-point increase over the past 10 years.

Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates high standards for poor and minority students, said the gap in scores should force educators to “take a pretty hard look at the systemic differences in teacher quality and curriculum.”

Until all students are expected to meet high standards and have access to a college-prep courses, she said, the gaps will remain. “There is no question a rigorous high school curriculum has a huge payoff in better scores,” she said.

The average score for Hispanic students was 925, a 5-point increase over the past 10 years. Slightly more than half of SAT test-takers were women, who scored 42 points below the average male student. Women’s average combined score was 1000. Asian-American students, who averaged a combined score of 1067, posted the highest average math score, 548.

On the ACT, the average score for African-American students was 16.9, the lowest among all racial and ethnic groups. White students scored slightly better than Asian-Americans to post the highest average score, with a 21.8.

Hispanic students scored 19.4 on the ACT, slightly better than students listed separately as Mexican-American or Chicano, who scored 18.5. Male students received an average score of 21.1 this year, essentially unchanged from 21.2 last year. The average score for female students remained at 20.9.

Asked about the influence of the billion-dollar-a-year test-preparation industry that tutors students in taking the SAT and the ACT, Mr. Caperton said that the best preparation for college-entrance exams is a strong high school curriculum.

Mark D. Musick, the president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, also downplayed test-prep courses in explaining variations in scores between different racial and ethnic groups.

He suggested that the College Board and ACT officials reveal how various ethnic and minority groups did on specific test questions. That would force educators, Mr. Musick said, to take a closer look at the causes of disparities in scores—lowered expectations for minority students and dramatic differences in the level of quality instruction and academic rigor.

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