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Minorities Score on SATs

This was a pancake year for SAT results - flat. Nationally, the average combined verbal and math score for the nation's college-bound seniors was unchanged from last year: 1026 out of a possible 1600.

But several minority groups made noteworthy gains. Nationally, Mexican-Americans improved their average overall score by four points; "other" Hispanic students by five points; and Native Americans by nine points, according to the College Board's annual report.

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Texas and California, in particular, saw increases in the number of Hispanics taking the test; and solid improvements in their scores. That indicates the higher aspirations (and population growth) of young Latinos, and better performance in school.

But a huge gap persists between whites and non-Asian minorities taking the three-hour test - a gap that still needs closing. Whites out-performed African-Americans by 202 points and Hispanics by 133 points.

Next March, the College Board will switch to a new test. Some education theorists argue it will treat minorities more equitably. They point to the elimination of the dreaded verbal analogies as a reason why. That section leans heavily on vocabulary more likely to be known by students from affluent and well-read white families. The new test will still measure reasoning, but by focusing more on what students have actually learned in the classroom - rather than the memorization of unfamiliar vocabulary lists - one expectation is that minorities will boost their scores.

That would be another encouraging development, except that a pilot run of the new test among 45,000 students shows no narrowing of the racial achievement gap. And some experts hold that minority performance could actually slip with the change. The new test, for instance, will add a higher level of difficulty in math (Algebra II). According to the College Board, less than a third of African-Americans take advanced math courses, while about half of whites do.

The College Board says it did not set out to design a test to artificially close the racial achievement gap, which exists on many educational levels besides the SAT. Rather, it wanted to ensure that it did not exacerbate the gap as it set about improving the test.

Still, the new test, which includes a long-overdue writing section, could have a positive impact on the performance of minorities if it drives them to take more challenging classes - a sort of reform without legislation.

But it looks like states will still have to focus on educating students better if they want to shrink the test's racial gap.