California's college-bound high school seniors scored somewhat better than the national average this year on the SAT exam's writing section but slightly worse on critical reading and math, according to results released Tuesday.
With 800 a perfect score on each part of the arduous college entrance test, California's 2009 high school graduating class averaged 500 in critical reading, 513 in math and 498 in writing. The national averages were 501 in critical reading, 515 in math and 493 in writing.
Combining all three sections, both the state and national averages on the SAT showed small dips. In California, that score was 1511, down one point from last year; nationally, it was 1509, two points lower than before.
Officials with the College Board, the nonprofit that owns the SAT, described scores as basically unchanged, even as a larger, more diverse group of students took the three-hour-and-45-minute exam.
"The fact that the scores are staying stable while you are doing that is a good sign," Laurence Bunin, senior vice president of the SAT program, said in a telephone news conference.
However, the exam's long-running gender, ethnic and income gaps persisted and in some instances, widened. Critics point to the gaps as evidence that many students are unfairly penalized by the nation's emphasis on standardized tests. Although an increasing number of colleges have made the tests optional, the SAT and its rival ACT exam remain an important part of applications to most schools, along with high school grades and extracurricular activities.
Nationally, men continued to score significantly higher than women on the SAT's math section, scoring 534 on average compared with 499, and slightly better in critical reading, 503 to 498. Women performed better in writing, averaging 499 compared with men's 486 points.
Asians and Pacific Islanders had the highest combined national average, 1623, boosted by strong math results. White students recorded an average score of 1581, Mexican and Mexican Americans had 1362 and African Americans 1276.
College Board leaders often seek to refute claims of test preparation firms that coaching can significantly boost SAT scores.
The most important preparation, SAT backers say, is a rigorous high school curriculum, including honors and Advanced Placement courses. Asian Americans tend to complete more and higher levels of math, such as calculus, according to Bunin.
The number of students taking the exam rose slightly this year, as did the proportion of ethnic minorities. Of the 1.53 million test-takers across the country, about 40% were non-white, up from 38% last year and from 29% a decade ago. "I'm tremendously encouraged by this progress," College Board President Gaston Caperton said.
A larger share of those who took the SAT in California were from minority groups than the national average. For example, Asians, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders comprised 21% of the California pool, about double the national share. Latinos were about 28% of test-takers in California, compared with 13% nationally.
California State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said he was pleased that larger numbers of the state's minority students were taking the SAT, but wished the scores were higher. "Even with test scores generally improving, we still have a long way to go," O'Connell said in a statement.
Nationally, SAT scores tumbled from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, but have risen somewhat since then.
Math averages are now six points higher than they were in 1972, and critical reading is 29 points lower. (The writing section is only in its fourth year.)
Scores for the ACT exam, which is popular in the Midwest and South and gaining ground in California, also stalled this year. A report released last week showed that students averaged 21.1 points on that test, the same as last year and just 0.2 points higher than in 2005.
The ACT's highest possible score is 36 points.
The largely flat scores show that the federal No Child Left Behind reform program, with its focus on testing, has not improved public education, said Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a longtime critic of college entrance exams.
"If the claims of success for No Child were coming true, we'd expect to be seeing these great improvements and narrowing in achievement gaps. Yet the data of the SAT and ACT show no progress," he said.