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Drop in SAT scores blamed on TV, teaching, ethnic diversity

This year's incoming college freshmen read and write worse than any class in the modern history of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, according to results released Monday. Even math scores on the SAT -- which had increased during the last decade -- dropped this year. The test, though controversial because of its constricting format, is nevertheless still considered an important barometer of college readiness.
And what the barometer is saying is that student academic performance has declined dramatically, particularly in verbal skills.

The cause? Experts cite a variety of factors, including television and poor teaching. But most important, especially in California, might be the increased diversity among the test-takers. The Associated Press quoted US Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander on Monday as saying: "The simple fact is that even our best students generally don't know enough and can't do enough to assure success in tomorrow's world."

The nation's verbal scores dropped two points this year to 422, the lowest since national averages were first calculated in 1969. The math score also dropped two points, to 474. The combined score -- 896 -- was the lowest since 1983.

The maximum score for each section is 800; the minimum is 200. California's average verbal score dropped four points to 415, an all-time low. The math score dipped two points to 482. As in past years, California's verbal scores were lower than the national average, but math scores were higher. That reflects the large number of immigrant students in the state who frequently enter schools with limited English ability but good math skills. Translated into real performance, the scores mean the average American student could answer only 42 percent of the questions in the test's verbal section this year. Two decades ago, the average student could answer 48 percent.

"It's hard to find the good news, although I think there is some," said Robert G. Cameron, senior research associate for the College Board, which oversees the test.

Cameron said a major reason for the decline is that more students -- particularly more minority students -- are taking the test. Of the 1 million students from the Class of 1991 who took the test, 28 percent were minorities, up from 11 percent in 1973. Because many minority students go to poor schools and some grew
up speaking a language other than English, their scores can bring down the average, Cameron said.

Yet their decision to take the test is indeed good news, Cameron said. "Presumably, then, more are aspiring to and therefore entering college, providing diversity."

Cameron said he suspects that verbal scores also are declining because students today read less and less -- both in school and out. Television has become their medium.

And he called it "quite possible" that schools aren't doing as good a job as they used to. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig said the scores concerned him. "The real problem, I think, is that the verbal scores are flat," he said.

Honig said educators must ask themselves, "Do kids read enough? Do they watch too much TV? Do we assign enough in school? Is it sophisticated-enough material?"

He also said that California districts encourage students to take the SAT even if they don't believe they will do well. "So some kids are trying this that normally never even tried it before," he said.

And although a higher percentage of seniors in California take the test than nationwide, he noted, the state's average combined score is above the national average.

College Board President Donald M. Stewart, who warned in 1990 that reading in the United States was becoming a "lost art," this year emphasized the "disturbing pattern of educational disparity" shown by the results.

Stewart noted that students who also take subject-matter achievement tests, which are required by many of the most-selective colleges, scored nearly 100 points higher on each part of the test than the average.

"If this kind of dichotomy continues," Stewart said, "we could evolve into a nation divided between a small class of educational elite and an underclass of students academically ill-prepared for the demands of college or the workplace."

Among the other disparities: whites averaged a combined score of 930, compared with 736 for blacks and 804 for Mexican-Americans. And students whose parents have graduate degrees averaged a combined score of 1,004, compared with 748 for students whose parents didn't graduate from high school.

Critics of the test contend it discriminates against women and minorities, a charge the College Board denies.

Saying its goal is to make the test harder to study for, the College Board will overhaul the SAT by 1994, including more reading passages, greater emphasis on reading critically, and some math questions that do not provide multiple-choice answers.

The test given this year, however, was very much like the test students scored much better on 20 years ago.

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