After years of narrowing the gap with males on the SAT college-entrance exam, female students in this year's high school graduating class fell further behind, the College Board reported Tuesday.
The widening gap renewed questions about the fairness of the high-stakes test, which is used by the nation's top colleges and universities as a criterion for admission.
The SAT has come under increased scrutiny since February, when UC President Richard C. Atkinson proposed dropping it within two years as a requirement for admission to the university's eight campuses. Atkinson argued that the test fails to measure what students learn in high school.
In this year's results, males outscored female students by 42 points on the combined verbal and math portions of the SAT, up modestly from 38 points the year before. Math scores accounted for most of the difference, as in years past.
In California, males' score advantage was even greater: 49 points. But because the state's test-taking population was much smaller than the nation's, the results are subject to more variability. Critics say the results should sound alarms about possible "gender bias" in the SAT exam, upon which 90% of four-year schools rely to help pick their freshman classes.
Female students, these critics noted, outperform males in the real world of high school and college and by all rights should significantly outperform them on the exam.
That women do not beat men's scores by 35 to 70 points overall indicates that the test is biased against them, one UC Berkeley researcher noted. "If the tests are followed slavishly, this bias on the SAT will matter at the big, highly selective colleges like Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego," said David K. Leonard, a professor of political science who has studied the effects of SAT scores at Berkeley.
Researchers speculate that young women are more likely to answer the multiple-choice math test questions the way they were taught in school. Young men are more likely to figure out shortcuts.
"It's a very complicated question, related to larger things about society," said Ann Gallagher, a researcher with Educational Testing Service. "It has to do with the way men and women live their lives and solve problems."
The College Board, the nonprofit organization that owns the SAT, disputed the notion that the test is weighted against women. Gretchen W. Rigol, a vice president with the College Board, noted that this year's test takers included 92,000 more female students than males, with women making up 53.6% of the tested group.
"A lot of those women come from families [in which they are the] first generation going on to college," Rigol said. "A lot haven't had as many academic courses, particularly rigorous math and science courses. But the good news is . . . they are still wanting to go off to college."
Still, another College Board official voiced concern that the organization last researched gender disparities more than a decade ago. "We probably need to revisit the gender differences," said Amy Elizabeth Schmidt, director of higher education and evaluation research for the College Board.
Thomas G. Mortenson, a higher-education policy analyst in Iowa, agreed that such circumstances could account for some of the disparity. "We're dipping farther into the ability pool with the girls."
Overall on the SAT, verbal scores for college-bound students nationwide increased one point this year to 506, the highest average score in more than a decade. The math scores remained at last year's 30-year high of 514. Each portion of the exam is scored on a scale of 200 to 800. A perfect combined score would be 1,600.
Ethnic minorities made up more than one-third of the record 1.3-million high school seniors taking the exam in the last academic year. That is the largest proportion of such students in history.
However, College Board President Gaston Caperton noted that the scores of most minority groups still trail those of whites. The disparities among whites and most minority groups, notably Latinos and blacks, resemble those found on other tests and show up as early as fourth grade, he said.
"They are clear evidence of inequitable access to high-quality education," he said at a news conference in Washington, echoing a theme of recent years.
African American students nationwide scored an average of 201 points lower than whites on the combined math and verbal SAT, worse than last year's 198. Mexican Americans scored an average of 151 points below non-Latino whites, versus 147 in 2000.
Asian American students outperform all other groups on the math section of the SAT.
In California, the number of college-bound students taking the SAT rose by 5,830 to nearly 162,000. The growth represented more than a third of the increase in the total number of students nationwide. California students overall scored 498 on the verbal, eight points below the national average, and 519 on the math, three points better than the national average.
Nationally, the College Board reported that 45% of this year's 2.85 million high school graduating seniors took the SAT. In California, 51% took the test, reflecting the fact that the UC system requires applicants to take the exam.
In recent years, most educators have focused on the growing gap along ethnic lines on SAT scores. But the bump up in the gender gap this year raised concerns anew.
"The SAT remains the only high school test that shows men with a verbal advantage over women," said John Katzman, founder and chief executive of the Princeton Review, which offers test preparation classes for a variety of exams, including the SAT.
Complaints about the gender gap have surfaced before.
In 1988, for example, Fair Test, an organization that opposes many standardized tests, challenged New York state's use of SAT scores as the sole criterion for granting state scholarships. A federal judge agreed. The state began counting grades as well as test scores, shifting $1.5 million more in scholarships to young women, said Bob Schaeffer, the group's public education director.
Six years later, Fair Test filed a complaint with the federal government, claiming that the preliminary SAT, or PSAT, which students usually take as high school sophomores, gave males an unfair advantage in the competition for National Merit scholarships. The government sided with Fair Test. The College Board and the Educational Testing Service, which prepares the PSAT and the SAT, added a new writing skills section to the PSAT. On that test, young women routinely score better than men.
Times staff writer Kenneth R. Weiss contributed to this story.