August 27, 1991|By Larry Gordon | Larry Gordon,Los Angeles Times

Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of high school seniors fell to a record low this year in verbal skills while scores on the mathematics section declined for the first time since 1980, the College Board announced yesterday.

Officials warned that the test scores showed a disturbing gap in education skills between a small elite bound for the most selective colleges and all other students who took the SAT.

National average scores on the examination crucial in many college admissions decisions dropped two points from last year in each of its sections -- to 422 in verbal and 474 in math. (Each section of the 2 1/2 -hour, multiple-choice test is scored on a scale of from 200 to 800 points.)

Reflecting immigration, some of the decline was caused by an increase in the number of test-takers for whom English is a second language, said spokesmen for the College Board, the New York-based organization that sponsors the test.

But the officials also suggested that many students must take more college preparatory courses and that the quality of those classes must improve before scores will improve substantially.

"We need to transform our educational system from one of low expectations for too many kids to one that enables all students to reach the potential we know they have," Donald W. Stewart, president of the College Board, said in a statement.

Twenty percent of the test-takers scored about 100 points higher than the national average on both parts of the SAT. They were those who also took achievement tests in such areas as history and chemistry that are required by very selective colleges.

In response to the latest scores, U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander renewed his call for voluntary national testing of youngsters in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades so that students who need help can be identified early.

The SAT is criticized by some because of gaps between scores of men and women and between whites and some minorities. Critics allege that those differences are caused by biases built into the test.

For example, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a Massachusetts-based group that has long opposed the SAT, once again described the SAT as destructive and said that colleges should stop requiring it for admission.

The College Board says differences in testing are caused by the educational and economic backgrounds of students and their parents. Nevertheless, the College Board announced changes last year aimed at addressing allegations of unfairness. The reforms, to be phased in by 1994, include permission to use calculators and the elimination of exercises to choose antonyms.

The much-discussed gaps continued in 1991.

Men averaged 426 in verbal, down three points from last year, and 497 in math, down two. Women averaged 418 in verbal, down one point, and 453 in math, down two.

Scores for both the math and verbal sections of the test declined slightly from last year's in Maryland. The average verbal score fell from 430 to 429, math from 478 to 475. Maryland's verbal scores were seven points above the national average, its math scores one point higher.

"Certainly, this causes concern any time there's a decline. But at the same time, there's an increase in the number of students participating," said Beth Campbell of the state Board of Education. She said 64 percent of Maryland high school seniors took the test, compared with a national average of 42 percent.

Whites do better than all minority groups in the verbal section, but Asian-Americans top whites and other groups in math.

Asians and Puerto Ricans were the only ethnic groups to show improvement nationwide this year, but minorities generally have shown impressive increases since the 1970s.

John Rivera of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to thi article.

Sample questions

Here are questions and answers from a test administered on Nov. 3, 1990, reprinted by permission of the Educational Testing Service, the copyright owner of the questions.

QUESTIONS

MATH

1. At a certain bakery, cakes, doughnuts and cookies are baked in the ratio of 2:3:5, respectively. If 150 doughnuts are baked, how many cookies are baked?

(A) 90

(B) 100

(C) 200

(D) 250

(E) 750

2. If the sum of the first 25 positive integers (1 plus 2 plus 3 plus . . . plus 25) is "s," and the sum of the next 25 integers (26 plus 27 plus . . . plus 50) is "t," what is the value of "s" in terms of "t"?

(A) t minus 25

(B) t minus 50

(C) t minus 325

(D) t minus 625

(E) 2t minus 325

VERBAL

Directions: Select the lettered pair that best expresses a relationship similar to that expressed in the original pair.

1. VULNERABLE -- INJURY:

(A) impressionable -- influence

(B) restrained -- feeling

(C) guilty -- confession

(D) cautious -- danger

(E) coerced -- choice

2. NORMAL -- ABERRATION:

(A) daring -- obscenity

(B) passionate -- emotion

(C) ridiculous -- humor

(D) trite -- originality

(E) indescribable -- appearance

ANSWERS

MATH

1. Answer is (D) -- correctly answered by 66 percent of test-takers.

2. Answer is (D) -- correctly answered by 20 percent of test-takers.

VERBAL

Answer is (A) -- correctly answered by 49 percent of test-takers.

2. Answer is (D) -- correctly answered by 24 percent of test-takers.