A Test-Taking Frenzy
College Board Says Minorities Taking SAT and AP Courses in Record Numbers
WASHINGTON — Record numbers of high school students are taking college entrance exams, their scores are improving — if only slightly — and the agencies that administer the tests are calling the 1990s a “decade of promise.”And keeping pace with the overall trend, the number of minority students taking the ACT, SAT, and Advanced Placement courses also grew steadily in from 1989 to 1999, the latest records show.The College Board announced late last month that even though the overall number of students taking the SAT and AP courses increased, math and verbal test scores saw only slight gains during the same period.In fact, the average math and verbal test scores for Hispanics not of Mexican American descent declined over the past decade. The average SAT score for Black students rose slightly for the decade, but the average math score dipped from 426 in 1998 to 422 in 1999. Gaston Caperton, president of The College Board, presented the annual study giving a glimpse of the academic preparedness of the nation’s college-bound seniors at a press conference here earlier this month.Caperton, the former governor of West Virginia, also announced The College Board plans to launch an SAT online learning center Web site this fall to help students who can’t afford SAT prep courses or tutors.Saying that SAT performance reveals as much about student readiness as it does the inequities in American education, Caperton described SAT performance data as the basis for “clear and unbiased figures to analyze” the disparities in the quality of education for American students across racial and class lines.“We need to correct inequities in the system,” says Caperton, who, because of the increases in college exam test takers over the past 10 years, refers to the 1990s as “a decade of promise.”The number of minority students taking the SAT rose from 25 percent, or 275,000 of the 1.1 million senior test takers in 1989, to 33 percent — nearly 400,000 of the 1.2 million senior test takers who graduated in 1999.Minority students taking AP course exams in 1989 accounted for 22 percent of the 314,686 students, or slightly more than 69,000. By 1999, more than 211,000 minority students, or 30 percent of the 704,298 total students, took AP courses.Black students comprised 10 percent of the high school senior SAT test takers in 1989 and 11 percent in 1999, resulting in a jump from 110,000 to 132,000, College Board data show.Even critics say they’re glad to see that more students — especially minorities — are taking college prep courses than 10 years ago. But some still contend that the SAT is too biased to have the influence it does in college admissions.“It’s certainly a good thing that more students, particularly minorities, are considering college and are taking rigorous courses,” says Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based education advocacy organization. Questioned whether the planned SAT Web site will exclude students with little or no access to the Internet, Caperton acknowledged that not having ready access to computers and the Internet would be a dilemma for some.However, he says the Web site should bring more attention to the “digital divide” between affluent school districts and families that own computers and the poor school districts and families that don’t. “It’s resources like the learning center that give schools and communities more reason to provide students connections to the Internet,” Caperton says.Elsewhere, officials who administer the other major college entrance exam, the ACT tests, were eager to point out that their data show student test scores are “substantially” higher now than 10 years ago.The Iowa-based company also notes that the nation’s big-city school districts, heavily populated with minority students, improved their average composite test scores from 18.7 in 1998 to 18.8 in 1999. Despite that improvement, in 1989, the average ACT composite was 20.6; in 1999, it is 21.0. The disparity in scores still finds Blacks at the bottom of the list with a long way to go before their average scores approach those of Whites.Such racial disparity remained strong even among students who took core-curriculum courses, although that type of education produced vastly better scores, ACT records show.“Urban students who enrolled in tougher courses outperformed students who did not take the harder courses — no matter what the poverty level of the city,” says Gateways to Success: A Report on Urban Student Achievement conducted by ACT and the Council of the Great City Schools.ACT officials also touted the larger numbers of students from all racial and ethnic groups taking their test this year — noting that for the first time, more than 1 million students took the test. Last year, 995,039 students took the ACT.“Nearly 164,000 more ACT-tested students graduated this year than graduated in 1989,” Richard L. Ferguson, president of ACT Inc., says. “This combination of trends — more students preparing for college while achieving higher entrance-exam scores — should be welcomed by those concerned about American education, especially as it pertains to college readiness.”In a related development, the Educational Testing Service revealed its researchers are studying the feasibility of creating a formula that would help colleges re-interpret SAT scores of students identified as disadvantaged.The formula would help schools identify “strivers” — students whose test scores are at least 200 points higher than what would be expected of them based on their socioeconomic background and education.The research should held determine “the effect of considering additional background information about candidates applying to college that would provide a richer context for candidates’ scores,” ETS officials say.“What FairTest supports is a system where students are evaluated for admissions without regard to their test scores. [The SAT] erects barriers to kids from low-income families of all ethnic and racial backgrounds,” Shaeffer says.
— Staff writer Eric St. John contributed to this report
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