SAT Scores Fall as Gap Widens; Asians Gain
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High-school students’ performance last year on the SAT college-entrance exam fell slightly, and the score gap generally widened between lower-performing minority groups and white and Asian-American students, raising questions about the effectiveness of national education reform efforts.
Average scores for the class of 2009 in critical reading dropped to 501 from 502, in writing to 493 from 494 and held steady in math, at 515. The combined scores are the lowest this decade and reflect stalled performance over the past three years. The reading scores are the worst since 1994.
Many observers Tuesday viewed the flat results of recent years as discouraging in light of a more than 25-year effort to improve U.S. education. “This is a nearly unrelenting tale of woe and disappointment,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “If there’s any good news here, I can’t find it.”
Mr. Finn, a former education official in the Reagan administration, said he expected the results of the SAT and ACT — another college entrance exam — to add fuel to a movement among the nation’s governors and school superintendents to come up with consistent national standards for high-school curricula.
The SAT scores — which range from 200 to 800 — are closely watched because the standardized test measures the achievement of America’s top high-school students. It is the most widely administered college-entrance exam.
The fresh data are sure to figure into the debate over President Barack Obama’s education agenda and potential changes to the federal No Child Left Behind law, which is up for renewal in Congress.
In the class of 2009, African-American students received an average critical reading score of 429, or 72 points below the general population. Math scores had a similar gap. Hispanic students’ scores also lagged but not by as much.
Asian-American students showed the most dramatic gains. In math they scored an average of 587 — 72 points better than the general population. Since 2008, their average math score has climbed six points.
The results come a week after the disclosure that only a quarter of 2009 high-school graduates who took the ACT, the other main college entrance exam, had the skills to succeed in college.
Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, the New York-based nonprofit that oversees the SAT, stressed what he considered the good news in Tuesday’s data: the growing and diverse number of students taking the exam.
A record 1.53 million students took the exam in 2009. About 40% were minority students, up from 29% in 1999. Education analysts said scores would be expected to drop as more students take the test, so College Board officials interpreted the stability in scores as encouraging.
Noting the gap in achievement between lower-performing minority students and the general population, College Board officials said those who lagged tended to go to school in poorer districts with fewer resources. “As a country, we must do better providing students of every background access to the best education,” Mr. Caperton said.
College Board officials said that Asian-American students appeared to do better at all income levels. Officials said that was because they tend to take more Advanced Placement and other rigorous courses, and their families place a strong value on success in education.
Though no timetable has been set, Congress is expected to revisit President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, which took effect in 2002 and mandates that all students be proficient on state tests in reading and math by 2014. It requires that all schools show steady progress toward meeting that goal or face sanctions. The law is aimed especially at boosting the achievement of minorities.
Mr. Obama has made college-readiness a major focus of his own education agenda, and the recent college-entrance results show the challenge of that task.
Critics of No Child Left Behind, including parents and teachers’ unions, have noted that much-touted gains on state tests often aren’t mirrored on national exams, such as the SAT. U.S. schoolchildren also lag top-performing Asian countries on an international assessment of math achievement.
“You can’t look at these results and say that NCLB has been an enormous success,” says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington. “The bottom line is the country is changing dramatically. Unless minority kids are educated better, we are going to be in trouble because pretty soon they are going to be the majority.”
Russ Whitehurst, a former top education official in Mr. Bush’s administration, noted that NCLB focuses more on early grades and wasn’t designed to have a huge impact on high school. The SAT scores echo other national tests that have found improvement in early grades that don’t translate into high school, he said.
Mr. Whitehurst, a senior fellow and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, says the U.S. has done “a decent job” educating the fast-growing population of Hispanic families. But he says the SAT results show a need to improve writing and reading instruction.
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