Why do three `rural' states lead US in SAT scores?

When New Hampshire state officials want to defend the low level of state aid they provide for education, ``Exibit A'' is often the performance of New Hampshire seniors on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Once again in 1984, the state ranked No. 1 among the 21 states (and the District of Columbia) that use the SAT for college admissions. Final 1984 figures released recently show New Hampshire with an average SAT score of 931, 34 points above the national average.

It's been that way for a decade. State officials say the fact New Hampshire provides its schools with less aid than any other state means local districts must concentrate on the basics. Others say the high test scores reflect old-fashioned, Yankee qualities such as discipline and community involvement, which dictate the low state intrusion in education.

It's a reasoning that pleases the Reagan administration. When former Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell released preliminary SAT results earlier, he was quick to single out New Hampshire as proof that ``the highest-spending states are not necessarily the highest-achieving states.''

But a number of educators and officials from other states -- and certainly a few from the poorer districts within New Hampshire -- are eager to stick fingers through the holes of that reasoning. They note, for example, that the state is small, rural, and still has a relatively homogeneous population. Less than 2 percent of the population is black, Hispanic, or Asian.

The fact that Vermont and Oregon -- also fairly rural and homogeneous -- tie for second in the SAT ranking (at 907) tends to support this reasoning. In addition, small numbers of students make small class sizes and low teacher-student ratios the rule rather than an expensive exception.

Others say high dropout rates and a tendency among many rural high school students not to go on to college mean that New Hampshire's SAT scores derive from a reduced pool of seniors. But state officials wave off that argument by noting that more than half of the state's seniors took the test in 1983, compared with about one-third nationwide. --

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