The most diverse class of college hopefuls in US history registered the highest average math scores ever reported on the SATs, the leading college entrance exam. These gains, reported Tuesday by the College Board, include all racial and ethnic groups - a 14-point rise over the past 10 years that officials attribute to access to higher-level math courses in US high schools. Average verbal scores remained flat.
"We've pushed very hard for students to take the most rigorous courses. Ten years ago, 37 percent of students who took the SAT had enrolled in precalculus; 10 years later, that's 48 percent," says James Montoya, vice president of the College Board and a former admissions director at Stanford University.
While not designed as an achievement test, the SAT claims to predict how well students will do in college. A demographic breakdown of test-takers also gives a snapshot of the changing face of college hopefuls. This year's class of SAT takers includes both the highest level of minorities (38 percent) and first-generation college students (36 percent). Fifty-eight percent of first-generation college students are women - a trend that held across ethnic lines.
SAT officials warn that performance comparisons based on this voluntary test can be misleading. For example, states with relatively low levels of participation tend to score higher on the SAT, as only the most motivated students take the test.
"I am encouraged by the improvement demonstrated in math, a fundamental skill that students need to succeed in college and, later, in a highly competitive global marketplace," said Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, in a statement.
Another variable that's hard to calculate is how much test preparation, in the form of tutoring, contributed to these gains. Early on, SAT officials claimed that test prep courses made little difference in student outcomes because the exam measured "aptitude" - a view challenged by the explosive growth of the test prep business in the 1990s.
"The real story [in the new SAT scores] is the record number of test-takers and the growing numbers of minorities and disadvantaged students who are taking the test and working to get a college education," says Andy Lutz, vice president of research and development for The Princeton Review, a leading test prep company.
The Review claims it can add 100 points to a student's SAT score. For the next graduating class, which began taking a new version of the SAT this spring, Mr. Lutz says his company is claiming gains of 200 points.
"There is a well-known disparity for these students, so why are the scores not dropping? The reason is that 10 years ago, The Princeton Review reached mainly 20,000 students with $1,000-a-pop expensive retail programs. Today ... hundreds and thousands of students are being reached with reasonable assistance - helping them be calm and go after this test," he adds.
Parents now face a bewildering array of test prep options that didn't exist 10 years ago, ranging from free online services or courses offered through public schools to high-end private tutoring.
Even the College Board, which once declared that test coaching couldn't help students, is offering its own test prep services.
"We try to create free and low-cost test prep options, so that all students have preparation available to them," says Mr. Montoya. For example, the state of Georgia signed on with the College Board to provide test readiness for all of its high school seniors.
But critics say there's a cost to all the attention given testing and test prep in the nation's schools.
"It's an enormous drain on kids' attention and focus, which should be on school," says Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School and a former admissions officer at Stanford University.
What parents and students often don't understand is that highly selective colleges and universities are looking for intellectual curiosity and vitality. Above "a certain floor," SAT scores matter less than students think, he says.
"A 750 kid may have spent all his time practicing how to fill out little round circles on Saturday morning; the 650 kid may have read more books, have more substantial leadership, and be more intellectual," he adds.
Moreover, critics say it's a mistake to use the new SAT results to claim victory for a national strategy of performance-based testing.
The most recent release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which measures academic progress for all students, not just those who are college-bound, did not show measurable changes for 17-year-olds in a reading or mathematics assessment, although it did report significant progress in math for students aged 9 and 13.