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SAT Achievement Gap Stays Wide

By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

August 29, 2007

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Record numbers of black and Hispanic high school students in Connecticut and elsewhere are taking the SAT college entrance exam - but some are also looking for colleges that no longer require the test.

In part, that is because many continue to lag far behind white and Asian students, according to annual results released Tuesday by the College Board.

Both state and national results showed a slight decline this year in most scores, with the achievement gap for black and Hispanic graduates remaining one of the nation's most difficult problems in education.

Overall, Connecticut high school seniors at public and private schools averaged 510 on the reading test, 512 in math and 511 in writing. That compares with national averages of 502 in reading, 515 in math and 494 in writing.

Broken down by race, black public school students averaged 416 on the reading test this year and Hispanic students 439, compared with 522 for white students - virtually the same gap that existed 10 years ago.

That gap has led to a debate about the merits of exams such as the SAT.

"Our preparation is more to work around [the test]," said Stephen Perry, principal at Hartford's Capital Preparatory Magnet School, where most students are black or Hispanic, and many are poor. Test scores often reflect socioeconomic status, race and parents' level of education, he said.

Perry has steered some of his top students toward a handful of colleges that do not require applicants to submit SAT scores, saying they stand better odds of getting into schools that de-emphasize standardized tests.

The College Board says nearly nine out of 10 colleges without open admissions policies still require entrance exams, but a growing number of schools have made the tests optional.

Connecticut College in New London asks applicants for some test scores, such as scores on SAT subject area tests, but does not require the main SAT reading, math and writing tests.

"It allows us to look at students coming from disadvantaged areas, from families where English is not spoken at home," said Martha Merrill, the college's dean of admissions. "We're not going to get bogged down by test scores that are not as high as those of many of our applicants."

That can be crucial for students such as Tiffany Ayala, a Capital Prep graduate in her second year at Connecticut College.

"I honestly don't think SAT scores say that much about a person," said Ayala, 19, who is Puerto Rican. Her scores averaged about 500 on the math, reading and writing sections of the test, she said - below the scores of most incoming freshmen at the private college. The top score possible on each section is 800.

"My classmates at Capital Prep ... we were just as capable as people who got higher scores," Ayala said.

More than 700 colleges across the nation have made tests optional, including 26 of the top 100 liberal arts colleges in the rankings compiled by U.S. News & World Report, said Robert Schaeffer of FairTest, a Massachusetts-based watchdog organization that is critical of standardized tests such as the SAT.

"The truth is that no standardized exam is needed in the admissions process, as a growing number of schools have demonstrated," he said.

FairTest contends that tests such as the SAT are unfair and inaccurate predictors of success for certain test-takers, including some minority groups. The College Board maintains that the differences in scores are not a reflection of cultural bias.

Other states have large achievement gaps, but Connecticut's are greater than the national average, partly because more students proportionately take the SAT than in most other states. Eighty percent of the state's high school graduates last spring took the test, the fourth-highest participation rate in the nation. The more students who take the test, the more likely the scores will be lower because the pool of test-takers generally includes more low scorers.

In Connecticut, state officials said the number of black students taking the SAT jumped 33 percent since last year, more than three times the national rate of growth. The number of Hispanic test-takers increased 25 percent, compared with a 15 percent increase nationwide.

Across the nation, the Class of 2007 was the largest and most diverse on record, with minority students making up 39 percent of test-takers.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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