By Kara Alaimo
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
As high-school students take the new version of the SAT this month, some wonder if higher-level math and a new writing component--in which females have tended to do better on than other tests--will close a gender gap in college-entrance test scores.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Sarah Palley excelled in her classes at Worcester Academy, an exclusive Massachusetts prep school, ran varsity track and cross country and worked backstage on theater productions.
But after scoring 1100 points--her combined math and verbal scores out of a possible 1600--on the Scholastic Aptitude Test she worried whether she could go to college.
"I wasn't sure if that was good enough to get me in," Palley said.
Three years later, Palley, now 20 and a business major at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass., is planning to attend law school and already has an offer of full-time employment at a law firm when she graduates next May.
"The SATs just weren't a good judgment of how I'd do in college," Palley said.
Now, the question is whether the new version of the SAT will alter the scores of young women like Palley.
"It's really difficult to forecast these things," said Viji Sathy, a research scientist at the College Board, based in New York City, about the new test, which costs $41.50, up from $29.50.
The new SAT has three scored parts--writing, math and critical reading--and a total of 2400 points instead of two parts and a total of 1600 points.
The new test includes a writing section that accounts for one-third of the weight of the exam and requires students to argue a point of view in an essay and identify grammatical errors in multiple-choice questions.
The math section--which previously tested basic algebra and geometry--now includes topics typically taught in third-year high school courses, such as advanced algebra, but no longer includes quantitative reasoning. And the critical reading component, previously known as the verbal section, still questions students on reading passages, but is five minutes shorter and does not include questions about analogies.
Sathy notes that the revised SAT exam was not designed with the sex gap in mind. "You never think to design a test towards a particular group. You only make efforts not to exclude a particular group. If boys were more likely to get an item related to the military, we'd throw that question out."
Nonetheless, Sathy said that the old SAT often unfairly reflects young women's potential. "We're really under-predicting women's performance in college when we look at SAT scores," she said.
For last year's college-bound seniors, the mean combined SAT score--out of a possible total of 1600 points--was 1049 for males, 1005 for females.
Roughly the same gap has persisted in recent years and defied other trends, such as females taking more higher-level math and English courses in high-school, reporting higher grades in high school and forming a 56-percent majority of college students.
Even though similar patterns are found in the breakdown of scores by gender on other exams--including the American College Test and the Graduate Record Examination--academics are reluctant to draw any conclusions.
"When studying human subjects in an educational setting, there are simply too many uncontrollable variables," said Bruce Walker, vice provost and director of admissions at the University of Texas at Austin. Fifty-three percent of females report taking more than four years of high-school level math and English, more than the comparable male percentages (47 percent for math; 43 percent for English).
But higher-level math study--in subjects such as trigonometry and calculus--may not have been an advantage in the past because the former version of the exam tested only basic algebra and geometry, said the University of Texas' Walker.
Sathy said that because the revised SAT exam offers the new writing section--a subject in which on other standardized tests females are known to outperform males--female scores might benefit.
Female students in all racial and ethnic groups outscore males on the writing section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam in fourth, eighth and twelfth grades, as well as on the SAT II exam for writing, a subject-specific test formerly required by the nation's most selective schools.
Sathy said the revised exam was designed to more accurately reflect changes in the educational system, including the greater emphasis both high schools and colleges now place on writing. She said the College Board had previously been prevented from adding the section because of the technology restraints of grading 2 million essays.
While math, verbal and writing scores are reported separately by the College Board, Sathy said it has become common practice for students and schools to add the sections together and report combined scores. (Walker, for instance, said his office considers the highest combined score a student attains and does not mix sub sections from different exams.)
While females may lag in SAT scores, they are ahead in grade-point averages in high school and are more likely to graduate high school and pursue post secondary education.
"Over my nearly 30 professional years in higher education I have observed that women are more naturally inclined to 'do' school," Walker said. "Women plan better, follow instructions more closely, work together more naturally, manage time better and are not afraid to ask for help more than men. If women do these things better than men, they then have a better chance to get higher grades, be more successful at 'doing' school and are therefore more likely to graduate."
Jacqueline King, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the American Council on Education, an organization of 1,800 college presidents that lobbies for higher education in Washington, speculates such differences may be linked to peer attitudes. "It may be more socially acceptable for girls to excel academically," King said. "Boys may be pressured to play sports or drive cool cars."
Walker said that rising expectations for females--that they can and should do anything--is a factor in females' increased success.
"Obviously, women have now overcome the legacy of 'we only educate our men,'" he said. "There are many special efforts made to recruit women into male-dominated disciplines--engineering, science, business--and to promote the 'you can be anything you want to be' attitude in young women. This is having a strong effect on the choices women make following high school."
Women now earn 20.7 percent of bachelor degrees conferred in engineering, 27.6 percent of bachelor degrees in computer/information science and 50 percent of bachelor degrees in business, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Kara Alaimo studied Journalism and Gender and Sexuality at New York University. She currently works in press relations for the New York City Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting.
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