The nation’s high school class of 2003 achieved the highest score on the math section of the SAT in at least 36 years–a gain some attribute to greater enrollment in advanced math and science courses and the proliferation of high-tech gadgets and computers.

Students’ scores in the verbal section of the test also hit a 16-year high.

The College Board, which owns the nation’s most popular college entrance exam, said Aug. 26 that this year’s high school graduates had an average cumulative score of 1,026 points on the SAT, up six points from 2002. Both the average math (519) and verbal (507) scores were up three points from last year.

The College Board attributed the higher scores to increased participation in advanced math and science courses such as physics, precalculus, calculus, and chemistry.

Johnny Lott, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, credited teaching methods that include more real-life applications, such as project-based learning. Students are “looking at problems that don’t just involve pure calculation and computation-type of mathematics,” said Lott. “They’re looking at real-world problem solving.”

Although he cited no supporting data, College Board President Gaston Caperton said high-tech toys that introduce young children to math and the computer programs that later help them to retain their interest in the subject also have helped boost math scores.

Overall, some 1.4 million students in the class of 2003 took the SAT during their high school career, and SAT scores play a role in the admissions process at 80 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities.

The math and verbal sections of the SAT are each graded on a 200- to 800-point scale. A total of 897 students in the United States had a perfect cumulative score of 1,600 this year.

Some critics say higher scores are a reflection of the test being easier than it was a generation ago. They, too, cite the prevalence of the internet, calculators, and preparation courses as contributing to the higher scores, implying that these aides somehow detract from pure brain power.

Regardless, the College Board says the higher test scores are significant, especially because more students are taking the exam, a fact that might be expected to bring average numbers down.

The nonprofit College Board said 36 percent of those taking the test were minority students, up 6 percentage points from a decade ago.

“The scores are moving in the right direction,” said Caperton. “But we must dedicate ourselves to answering the question about all students: Are they moving in the right direction?”

Results from both tests this year showed the gap between the scores of white students and non-Asian minorities persists.

Overall, this year’s average math scores are the highest the College Board could document since at least 1967. The College Board altered the way it scores the test in 1995, but in its Aug. 26 report, scores before that year were recalculated to take the changes into account.

The board was unable to provide statistically adjusted scores prior to 1967. The SAT was first administered in 1926.

Girls have improved notably in math over the last decade, with their average scores increasing 19 points to 503. Boys’ math scores have gone up 13 points over the same period to 537. The board said 54 percent of the test-takers were girls and 46 percent boys.

Along with the ACT, the country’s second-largest entrance exam, the SAT has come under fire from critics who maintain high schools and colleges place too much emphasis on these standardized exams. Others contend the tests are unfair to students from poorer school districts.

SAT verbal scores increased only seven points since 1993, compared with a 16-point jump in math proficiency during the same period. The College Board reported that enrollment in English composition courses has dropped from 79 percent to 66 percent over the past decade.

Arlene Ackerman, the superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, said one way to improve verbal scores writing skills is to emphasize writing skills in classes other than English and composition.

“We want students to get multiple experiences in writing. And to do it well, we have to see writing as an integral part of every content area,” Ackerman said.

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