More Students Take SAT, But Achievement Gap Persists

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday September 03, 2009 - 12:17:00 PM

The 2009 SAT college entrance exam results released by the College Board last week showed increased participation but a widening achievement gap for California public school students. 

Berkeley Unified School District’s Director of Evaluation and Assessment Dr. Rebecca Cheung said that data about individual high schools, including Berkeley High, has not yet been released.  

Last year’s numbers showed a sharp decline in English and math scores for Berkeley High School. 

A large number of Berkeley sophomores took the Preliminary SAT in 2008 because an anonymous donor paid for the school’s 900 10th graders to take the test, but African-Americans lagged behind in participation. The 2009 PSAT will be administered this fall for Berkeley High students. 

Cheung said that the anonymous donor had decided to pay for the tests once again this year. 

“Last year was the first time the donation happened,” Cheung said in an e-mail. “I think the data revealed a participation [gap] that will now be addressed. I hope to see improved participation this year.” 

Last year, seventy-six percent of white 10th graders scored in the top 50 percent nationally in the PSAT, followed by twenty percent of Latino students and five percent of African-Americans. 

2007-08 SAT verbal scores for Berkeley High showed a 28-point decline from four years ago, while math scores recorded a 40-point drop in the same period, a matter of concern for district superintendent Bill Huyett. 

This year, 49 percent of public high school graduates statewide took the test, up from 48 percent last year. Of these, 37 percent were minority students, and 47 percent were the first in their family to go to college. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 10 of the 15 fastest growing jobs in the country require the applicant to have some postsecondary education—either a two- or four-year college degree or certificate training—despite the current recession. 

“The downturn we’ve experienced in our economy has seen California’s unemployment rate rise to a record high of 11.9 percent as we saw last week,” said State Superintendent Jack O’Connell. “With increased unemployment comes increased competition for jobs, so it is encouraging to see that more and more students continue to take the SAT. This means more students are strongly considering pursuing a college degree, which will significantly enhance their marketability in the workforce.” 

California public school students scored 495 in critical reading, up one point from 2008; 493 on writing, similar to the year before; and 494 on mathematics, a decrease of one point from 2008.  

The California Department of Education said that state public school students who took more demanding honors or Advanced Placement courses scored higher in the SAT. Students taking English honors or AP courses scored 55 points more in critical writing than the average of all students in California, and 56 points higher in writing. 

Students taking math honors or AP courses were ahead by 86 points compared with the state’s average SAT mathematics score. 

  Hispanic students showed the highest increase in number of test takers among all ethnic groups—jumping from 46,956 test takers in 2008 to 49,498 in 2009.  

“Even with test scores generally improving, we still have a long way to go,” O’Connell said. “The achievement gap continues to persist between students who are white or Asian and African-American or Latino students.” 

The SAT scores, like those for ACT—a rival college entrance exam—showed that too many students of color continued to fall behind academically. 

Some Berkeley High teachers suggested at a school board meeting in June that the school’s falling math scores might be attributed to the fact that more students were taking the ACT, a different college entrance test, resulting in fewer of them taking the SAT. 

However, Berkeley Unified officials said that because ACT had not reported Berkeley High School’s participation rate to the district for the last two years, there was no way to know for sure. 

According to the state education department, a record number of California students took the ACT this year, outshining their peers nationwide on average ACT scores across all subjects. 

O’Connell pointed out that there was a significant achievement gap when it came to students preparing for college.