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Nation’s High School Graduates Score Slightly Higher on SAT Math Section

By Rebecca Trounson
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- The high school graduating class of 2002 scored slightly higher in math but lower in verbal skills than last year’s class on the SAT, the College Board reported Tuesday.

College Board President Gaston Caperton applauded students for their improved math performance, noting that the average score rose 2 points this year to 516 -- its highest level since 1969. He attributed the gain to students taking more rigorous math courses.

But scores on the verbal part of the high-stakes test taken by 1.3 million high school students have stalled in recent years, and dipped 2 points this year to 504. Caperton urged U.S. high schools, parents and students to place renewed emphasis on reading, composition and grammar.

“As a nation, we need to focus on helping students improve their reading and writing skills,” he said at a Washington, D.C., news conference.

The College Board, which owns the SAT, announced in June that it will add a writing test to the exam beginning in March 2005. The move was propelled in part by the University of California, the SAT’s biggest client, which had threatened to scrap the test in favor of developing one of its own.

Students don’t read as much or as deeply in high school as they used to, several educators said. “What we have now is a population that is very responsive to imagery but losing its capacity to use and respond to words,” said Carol Muske-Dukes, a University of Southern California English professor who directs the university’s graduate writing program. “When you lose the capacity to read deeply, you lose the capacity to think.”

In other trends, female students this year narrowed the gap between their overall scores and those of male students, but only slightly. Males outscored females by 39 points on the combined verbal and math portions of the SAT, down from 42 points last year. Math scores accounted for most of the difference, as in previous years.

Critics said the persistent gap should raise questions about the fairness of the test, which is used by the majority of the nation’s top colleges and universities as a criterion for admission.

“It just galls me that a test that purports to predict how students will perform in college continues to show that women do worse even though they do so much better in college,” said Paul Kanarek, who heads the Orange County, Calif., office of the Princeton Review, which prepares students for the SAT.

Female students, he and others noted, receive better grades than men in high school and college and should thus outperform them on the SAT and other exams, they say.