The College Board Tuesday reported the highest level in SAT math scores in 35 years - a sign that national education reforms are beginning to take hold.
Verbal scores also rose to their highest level since 1987.
More remarkably, these gains occur at a time when more students than ever are taking college preparatory exams, 1.4 million nationwide. In the past, a larger pool of test takers has tended to lower scores.
In the class of 2003, some 36 percent of test takers were minorities; 38 percent represented the first generation in their families to aspire to college.
"Higher SAT scores, a record number of test takers, and more diversity add to a brighter picture for American education," says Gaston Caperton, College Board president. "Reform efforts are really beginning to take hold, and the national data [show] this."
One reason is that students are taking more challenging classes, especially in mathematics. Some 45 percent of the students who took the SAT this year took precalculus courses, up from 33 percent in 1993. One in 4 completed a calculus course.
The improvement in math parallels improvements in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national test that measures progress of all students, not just those aspiring to college. New NAEP math scores will be released in the next six to eight weeks, the first survey since 2000. "It's fair to say that we are showing some 'up' in mathematics," says NAEP chairman Darvin Winick.
In the future, the College Board will step up its emphasis on the need for high-quality coursework in reading and writing, says Mr. Caperton, who notes that SAT verbal scores still lag behind math scores. "Rigorous preparation in this area is crucial for students' success in college and beyond," he adds.
The new SAT, which will be first offered in March 2005, will feature more reading passages and writing, College Board officials say.
Even as the new scores were being released, debate was already beginning over how much credit reformers can claim for the increase. Since 1985, much of the national reform effort has focused on building more high-stakes testing and accountability into public education. The Bush administration's signature No Child Left Behind Act mandates annual testing in reading and mathematics for grades 3 to 8, with penalties for schools that do not demonstrate "adequate yearly progress."
YET the states that were poster children for this new approach, Texas and Florida, register only modest, single-digit gains, whereas some states that do not emphasize high stakes tests show gains in the double digits.
"Texas and Florida have been treading water for years, while states like Vermont are moving ahead much faster than the national average," says Bob Schaeffer, director of the National Center for Fair & Open testing (FairTest), a national advocacy group that is opposed to high-stakes testing. "It undermines the claim that high-stakes tests improve overall education quality."
The College Board itself has been under siege for at least a decade by such critics over concerns that the test disadvantages minority groups and women, who often do better in their first year of college than the test predicts. This year's test results show that all ethnic and minority groups are scoring better on verbal scores than a year ago.
But more ominously, the 2003 SAT results also show that the gender and racial gaps, which had been closing for much of the last decade, are widening again. This will make it more difficult for qualified women and minorities to win admission to college, especially colleges that rely heavily on tests for admission, critics say.
"This calls to question the SAT's validity, since the College Board admits that it underpredicts [success] for women and overpredicts for men," says Mr. Schaeffer. "Also disconcerting is the growing racial gap between whites and African-Americans or Mexican-Americans. It means that schools that heavily rely on test scores for admissions or scholarships will be otherwise barring their doors to qualified females and minorities."
The goal of the SAT has been to level the playing field for students seeking admission to college. High test scores from a high school no one has heard of can be enough to win admission to a top college or university - and better life prospects. That's why fights over whether tests are fair have been so intense.
Progress in verbal skills has been slow, says Wayne Camara, vice president of research for the College Board, in part because of rising numbers of test takers for whom English is a second language.