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SAT Math Score Reaches Historic High, While Verbal Remains Same

By Kenneth J. Cooper

The average SAT math score reached a 30-year high in 2000, continuing a decade of improvement with a three-point increase this year, The College Board announced Tuesday. But the average score on the verbal section of the college placement exam remained unchanged for the fifth straight year.

The national average on the mathematics test has risen by a total of 13 points since 1990 and now stands at 514, the highest level since 1969, when it was 517. The average verbal score, 505, has been the same since 1996 and remains far below levels of 30 years ago.

Girls continued to narrow the math score gap between themselves and boys.

The record math scores signify the full reversal of a decline that began about 30 years ago, when the pool of prospective college students grew dramatically because of an influx of minority students and women prompted by desegregation and the women’s movement. But urban school systems failed to prepare many minority students to do well on the SAT.

Gaston Caperton, The College Board’s president, called the three-point gain in math a “cause for cautious optimism” and attributed the increase to high school students taking additional, more difficult courses in math and science.

“Over the last decade, male and female students from all ethnic backgrounds have been taking more pre-calculus, calculus and physics,” said Caperton, a former West Virginia governor. “These are some of the most rigorous courses available and help students develop excellent math skills.”

Gains associated with that trend in coursework have been spread across all racial and ethnic groups, according to The College Board, which sponsors the Scholastic Achievement Test, the most widely used placement exam.

Of the record 1.26 million students who took the SAT this year, 44 percent had taken a pre-calculus course, compared with 31 percent in 1990. During the same period, the percentage of SAT takers who had studied calculus rose from 19 percent to 24 percent and the proportion who had taken physics courses grew from 44 percent to 49 percent.

More girls than boys were adding the tough courses, with beneficial results: girls shaved six points off the traditional male advantage in the SAT math test, the data showed.

“The gender gaps in SAT scores are closing,” Caperton said.

The largest increases in college prep work occurred among three minority groups whose average SAT scores have historically lagged behind those of white and Asian students: African Americans, Native Americans and Mexican Americans. African Americans and Mexican Americans gained 4 points in math.

To sustain the upward trend in math scores, Caperton said, the nation needs to make Advanced Placement courses more widely available, especially in inner city and rural schools. The board has a goal of doubling the number of AP students -- currently about 1.2 million high school juniors and seniors -- in 10 years.

Even though the average verbal score again didn’t rise, Caperton found reason to be pleased that it didn’t decline either.

“Verbal scores are holding steady, even though more of today’s college-bound high school students than ever before have English as their second language or have parents who aren’t native English speakers,” he said.