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COLLEGE-BOUND STUDENTS SCORE BIG GAINS

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Students are taking tougher classes. College-bound seniors are preparing better for test time. And maybe the nation's teenagers are learning more, reversing two decades of educational decline.

Whatever the reasons, the result is that members of the class of 1995 marked their best cumulative scores since the early 1970s on the Scholastic Assessment Test, making most of the long-term gains in math.Asian Americans remain top scorers with whites close behind, while other minority students have made broad gains in recent years to close the gap. Meanwhile, boys stayed ahead of girls, but girls are moving faster up the scholastic steps, according to scores released Thursday for the just-revised entrance exam, the most widely used by colleges.

Education Secretary Richard W. Riley attributed improvements to students taking tougher classes, especially in math and science.

But he added, "We still have a gap between students who have stronger opportunities and those who haven't. We still have an awful lot of work."

The national average on the verbal test increased from 423 in 1994 to 428 in 1995, while math scores rose from 479 to 482. That cumulative total of 910 in 1995 was the highest since 1974 when the total score was 924.

The few Utah students who took the SAT averaged 513 in verbal, up from 509 the year before, and 563 in match, up from 558. Utah universities use the ACT testing, and most college-bound Utah students take that test. The SAT is taken by Utah students planning to go to school in other states.

This year, boys scored 429 in the verbal portion compared to 426 for girls. Among ethnic groups, whites were the top scorers, with a 448 average.

In math, boys bested girls 503-463. Asian Americans were the top scorers, with a 538 average.

In 1994, the name of the examination was changed to the Scholastic Assessment Test from the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Other changes were made, too: The 1995 test was greatly modified to emphasize reading comprehension and math problem-solving over multiple-choice questions and rote memorization. Students also can use calculators, and they have 15 more minutes to solve problems on each test.

SAT officials said the revised test isn't easier or tougher - just different - so scores should be about the same as for the old tests.

The 1995 verbal score was the highest since 1988, but is quite a comedown from the late 1960s and early 1970s when students scored 450-460.