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Scores Stable as More Minorities Take SAT

By Maria Glod and Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

SAT performance held steady for 2008 high school graduates even as participation rose among minority students and those who are part of the first generation in their families to go to college, the College Board reported yesterday.

In Maryland, the number of black and Hispanic students who took the college entrance exam rose sharply, and the overall score, which includes public and private schools, remained unchanged compared with the previous year -- 1498 on a 2400-point scale. In Virginia, more black, Asian and Hispanic students took the test, and the overall score rose two points, to 1522.

In the District, the overall score dropped 21 points, to 1390, with decreases on all three sections of the exam -- reading, writing and math. But the number of black test-takers in the city rose 27 percent.

Nationwide, the number of students taking the SAT surpassed 1.5 million for the first time, up 8 percent from five years ago and almost 30 percent over the past decade. Forty percent of test-takers were minority students, up from 39 percent last year, and 36 percent were among a group described as first-generation collegegoers, up from 35 percent.

College Board officials considered the boost in participation evidence that the high school students who aspire to a college degree are growing more ethnically and economically diverse.

Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, a nonprofit organization based in New York, said the pool of test-takers "more than ever . . . reflects the face of education in this country."

"It's essential that all students strive to attend college -- and then succeed in their classes and, ultimately, graduate. We're gratified to see that our country is moving increasingly toward being a nation of college graduates," he said.

Some educators, policymakers and others concerned about high school quality saw the consistency in scores from last year as a bright spot. Scores on standardized exams often dip when the number of test-takers increases.

Education experts said that recent efforts to improve the quality of high school courses and expand academic options, to ensure that students are ready for college, are possibly starting to take hold.

"Some of these kids wouldn't have taken the SAT just a few years ago. They wouldn't have wanted to. They wouldn't have been encouraged to. And both are changing," said former West Virginia governor Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a group seeking to improve high schools. "I also take it as a challenge. It's not fair to build the expectation level and not be able to deliver on the quality of education."

In 2005, the SAT was revamped and expanded to include a writing section, changes that prompted test scores to fall and some students to complain that the exam was too long.

But that downward trend leveled off with the Class of 2008. The average scores, including public and private schools, were: critical reading, 502 (out of 800); math, 515; and writing, 494. The combined average was 1511.

For Fairfax County public schools, the average score rose 15 points, to 1654, from last year. Montgomery County public schools' scores dropped seven points, to 1617. The two counties, with the region's largest school systems, reported that fewer students took the test. Officials in both counties said that fewer black students took the exam. Hispanic participation decreased slightly in Fairfax.

One possible explanation is that more students are opting to take the ACT, another widely used entrance exam, school officials said. In addition, some colleges are making the SAT test optional for

admissions. Fairfax school officials also said more students opted not to answer a question on their ethnicity.

In Arlington County schools, the overall number of students tested dropped, although the tally of black and Hispanic test-takers rose. Black students

received higher scores in all three sections, but the scores for Hispanic students fell across the board.

The SAT used to be taken mainly by an elite group of top-performing students. Kathleen Wills, director of planning and evaluation for Arlington schools, said a small dip in performance is expected as more students who aren't at the top of their class join the test-takers.

"When you see participation increase, it's not surprising to see the overall averages drop," Wills said. "The first groups that participate are likely to be the highest-achieving students."

Staff writers Nelson Hernandez, Ian Shapira, Bill Turque and Theresa Vargas contributed to this report.

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