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SAT Tests Show Gains Made in 1980s Eroding : Education: Girls do slightly better in math, but boys' verbal scores fall. California students decline in both areas.

August 25, 1994|RALPH FRAMMOLINO and STEPHANIE CHAVEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

American high school students continue to make plodding progress in math but are slipping back to historic lows in verbal skills, all but wiping out gains posted during the educational reform boom of the 1980s, the latest Scholastic Aptitude Test scores for graduating seniors show.

Tallies to be released today by the College Board for the nation and for California contain good and bad news for the high school Class of 1994: Girls are making gains but boys are slacking, particularly in verbal skills, and grade inflation remains unchecked.

In California--where a greater proportion of high school students are poor, members of minority groups or speakers of English as their second language--scores dropped 2 points in verbal skills. Math scores also dropped slightly, but the state still scores above the national average, a phenomenon one expert attributed to California's large Asian American student population.

There were grimmer results, however, for Los Angeles Unified School District seniors, whose average scores dropped 3 points in verbal skills and 8 points in math. Overall, the Los Angeles Unified scores remain well below the national average, although more seniors are taking the SAT.

More than 1 million high school seniors nationwide--a record 42% of the graduating class--took the 2 1/2-hour test, an American rite of passage and an indicator of how students will fare in their freshman college year. SAT scores are often used as a benchmark for college admissions.

The SAT's verbal portion measures reading comprehension and vocabulary skills, while the math section tests knowledge of arithmatic, algebra and geometry. Both are graded on a scale of 200 to 800 points.

Scores in both categories slid during the 1970s and bottomed out with the Class of 1981, which earned a 424 in the verbal portion and 466 in math, for a total of 890. Those dismal marks, in part, prompted calls for more rigorous courses, basic skills testing and other classroom reforms.

Since then, math scores have risen steadily, and this year's graduating seniors scored 479 on the math portion, 1 point better than the Class of 1993. The reason: A strong showing by girls, whose math scores crept upward 3 points to 460, while the results for boys slid 1 point to 501. Statistics show girls were taking more pre-calculus, calculus and physics classes in high school.

In the verbal skills area of the SAT, the national average for girls went up a point, to 421 but boys more than wiped out that gain with a 3-point drop to 425.

On Wednesday, officials of the College Board, the New York nonprofit organization that administers the test, suggested the backsliding may be the result of 10% fewer high school boys taking English grammar and composition courses.

Even so, the officials expressed cautious optimism that the 1994 results showed more of a "gradual turnaround in academic study" because a greater proportion of high school students are now taking the test--a change that would depress all scores because a broader range of abilities is represented.

The report to be released today also found that grade inflation has not abated in high schools. This year 32% of graduating seniors reported an A average, up from 28% in 1987. Meanwhile, the average SAT scores were 6 to 15 points lower than six years ago.

In California, this year's graduating class dropped 2 points from last year in each skill scale. The 1994 verbal score is 413, 10 points below the national average, and on Wednesday Acting State Supt. of Public Instruction William D. Dawson issued a statement blaming economic and social factors for the difference.

He said that compared to students nationwide, California students are poorer than average, more than twice as likely to have learned English as a second language and more than twice as likely to have parents who did not finish high school, and that they took fewer than half as many college-prep courses. But a higher percentage of California students took the SAT than took it nationally.

SAT Scores

Here are the national and state averages for SAT scores:

CALIFORNIA AVERAGES

Year Verbal Math 1983 421 474 1992 416 484 1993 415 484 1994 413 482 NATIONAL AVERAGES 1983 425 468 1992 423 476 1993 424 478 1994 423 479

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