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College-aptitude scores end 20-year slide. Minorities in Class of '85 make gains, but they still lag whites

The latest scores from the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) show a marked increase in math and verbal skills for college-bound seniors, with the most dramatic improvements coming from the ranks of minority students. The scores, used by college admissions offices, rose nine points for the Class of '85 -- the largest gain since 1963. The College Board, which sponsors the standardized tests, reported Monday that average math scores rose from 471 in 1984 to 475, while average verbal scores went from 426 in 1984 to 431 this year. A perfect SAT score is 800 for each section.

Standardized tests like the SAT have come under fire from many educators during the past decade. Some charge that the tests don't give an accurate representation of what students have learned. Instead, they say, the exams test a fragment of a student's knowledge about a subject, rather than the student's overall understanding of a concept or subject. Others, like author David Owen, say test results are undermined by ``coaching'' and by cultural biases within the tests themselves.

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Still, Monday's figures vividly punctuate the end to a 20-year slump in SAT scores. William J. Bennett, US secretary of education, said the results are ``further evidence that American secondary education is on the mend.''

The announcement bears out what some educators have long suspected -- that stronger reading and math programs in the grammar schools introduced in the early 1970s would pay off later. Those grammar school students, who learned phonics and more difficult reading skills, have been able to build on their knowledge throughout their school years, says Jeanne Chall, a professor of education at Harvard University.

Minority students made giant strides in improving their scores, although they still lag far behind white students in achievement levels. Average scores rose 16 points for Puerto Rican students, 12 points for Hispanic students, and seven points for black students. In addition, 20 percent of all test-takers were minority students, the highest proportion ever, according to College Board president George H. Hanford.

The percentage of black students taking the test, however, dropped from 9.1 last year to 8.9 this year. The decline represents 2,000 fewer black students taking the test, says Joan Gunin, public affairs associate for the College Board.

Groups that monitor the education progress of minority students say they were buoyed by the good news about SAT scores. But they add that the gap between minorities and whites needs to narrow much more if minority children are to compete effectively for available slots in the nation's colleges.

While the number of Hispanics taking the SATs has been rising slowly during the past several years, they still account for only 3.4 percent of all SAT takers.

Educators still must find a way to keep Hispanic students in school, says Al Kauffman of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund in San Antonio.

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The dropout rate for Hispanics is about twice the national average, he notes.

Theodore M. Shaw, attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, says he's not sure the SAT scores ``make that much difference in terms of competition with other college-bound students.''

Reports have shown that the number of black students enrolled in four-year universities has dropped in recent years.

``Fewer see college, especially private colleges, as a viable option'' in the face of rising tuition and cuts in the federal student-loan program, Mr. Shaw says.

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