Asian-Americans, long known for their soaring math scores, are cheering the fact that they are finally above average verbally. This is the first year Asian-Americans collectively scored above average, according to the College Board, which oversees the SATs, the college entrance exams.
Even though the group's national average score of 508 was only one point above the mean for college-bound students, some say it's a landmark because it debunks the stereotype that all Asian-Americans are math whizzes and proves that the group has the language skills to fully integrate into mainstream America.
Asian-Americans did even better in Maryland, where they averaged 522 on the verbal section. The state average was 509.
"That's wonderful news. It shows that we speak English and don't have to only do math and science. All the doors are open to us," said Young-Chan Han, the family outreach liaison for English for Speakers of Other Languages in Howard County schools. Han, who is Korean-American, acknowledges that she is "terrible" at math.
But is the 508 average really a stereotype-buster?
Scoring well on the verbal section, which relies heavily on analogies, vocabulary and reading comprehension, doesn't go hand in hand with English proficiency, some say. It could be that Asian-Americans are enrolling in SAT prep classes, feverishly going over practice tests, staying up late to memorize vocabulary cards and generally stressing out over test scores.
"Hey, that's a stereotype, too," said Chris Moon, a 17-year-old Ellicott City resident who said he raised his verbal score from 460 to 650 by taking private classes to prepare.
Thanks in part to high math test scores, Asian-Americans are often typecast as being good with numbers. "People would ask me to do their math homework," said Park Fay, a Chinese-American junior at the Johns Hopkins University.
But it appears there is some truth to the stereotype, according to SAT scores. Asian-Americans averaged 575 on the math section - 41 points higher than whites, the second-highest group - and 56 points higher than average.
More Asian-Americans also took more courses such as physics and pre-calculus than any other group, according to the College Board.
Asian-American verbal scores have historically lagged behind the SAT verbal norm, although they gradually have been making progress. Ten years ago, the group scored 11 points below average. Asian-Americans were 3 points below average last year.
Some say the rising scores reflect Asian-Americans' growing English language abilities. The College Board does not keep track of how many Asian-Americans learned English as their first language, but native speakers score almost 60 points better on the verbal section than non-native speakers.
It's unclear how many Asian-Americans are native English speakers or how quickly foreign-born children learn English. But many experts say more children are learning English, a claim that is supported by U.S. Census data.
Nearly 380,000 school-age Asian-Americans live in homes where no adults speak English well, according to the most recent census. That is about 125 percent more than a decade before, according to the census. The total Asian population grew by nearly 140 percent during that same time.
Almost 91,000 non-native speakers took the SATs this year, according to the College Board. In Maryland, nearly 1,700 such students took the test.
As more Asian-Americans grow up in this country and read and speak English as a first language, they will score better on the verbal section, said Amy Schmidt, executive director of higher-education research for the College Board.
The amount of English reading "kids do for their own pleasure is often related to how well they do" on the verbal section, Schmidt said.
But others say the rise in verbal scores can be attributed to the number of Asian-Americans taking SAT prep classes.
Most popular courses, including Princeton Review and Kaplan, say they do not keep track of the number of Asian-Americans who enroll. Moon said that of the 10 people in his private prep course, six were Asian.
Others openly scoff at the notion that the SAT is an accurate reflection of verbal skills.
The test is "all about technique," said Brian Yoon, a Korean-American freshman at New York University. Yoon boosted his verbal score by 100 points after taking the Princeton Review and learning tips such as eliminating obviously wrong options from the multiple-choice test to increase his chances of guessing the correct answer.
"There are a lot of people who don't speak [English] but can do well on the SAT. And a lot of us have been exposed to white people at school, and speak the language just like them, but don't do great on the verbal section," he said.
Schmidt said College Board research shows that taking SAT review courses doesn't necessarily increase test scores, although she noted that Asian-Americans tend to take the test multiple times - more than other groups and an indication of how important the exam is to many Asian-American students and parents.
"Attention is paid to doing well on that test," she said.
But there is an argument that the Asian-American category is too broad to truly gauge progress in the community.
While many Japanese-Americans may have lived in the United States for several generations, enjoy relative affluence and speak English perfectly, people from Southeastern Asian countries such as Thailand and Cambodia have often arrived more recently, have less access to resources and are more likely to fare poorly in school and on standardized tests, said Anita Poon, a staff member at the University of California at Davis who works with Asian-American students.