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Men still outscore women on the Scholastic Assessment Test, but women have nearly closed the gap on the verbal section of the college-entrance test and are gaining ground on the math.

Overall, 1996 college-bound students did better than last year's test-takers, according to test results released this week. Math scores improved to levels last seen in the early 1970s, while verbal scores remain well below those of 25 years ago.But some critics question the results because of recent changes in format and scoring. Others claim it is not a fair indicator of how students, especially women and minorities, will do their first year in college.

More than 1 million members of the Class of 1996 took the test - a one-year increase of nearly 17,000.

The average math score was 508, up from 506 in 1995 and just one point behind the 1972 average math score of 509.

The average verbal score was 505, up from 504 last year but still 25 points below the 1972 average of 530.

Utah's SAT score averages in 1995 were 585 verbal and 576 math. The state's 1996 scores were 583 verbal and 575 math. Four percent of Utah's graduates took the SAT.

While the women's average verbal score of 503 was only four points behind the men, their average math score of 492 trailed the male average by 35 points.

"The gap is narrowing slightly. While women are taking more science and more math courses, they haven't closed the gap yet," said Gretchen Rigol, director of admission and guidance services for the College Board, which administers the test.

Overall, the slightly higher scores reflect more students taking honors courses and classes in calculus, chemistry and physics, according to the board.

College Board President Donald Stewart said he was puzzled about why verbal scores remained below 1970s levels. He speculated that students are watching more television, reading less and spending less time studying English.

Another possibility is that students are not asked to write enough in any of their classes, said Christopher Cross, president of the Council for Basic Education, a Washington-based organization that advocates rigorous liberal arts education.

"Even though the (verbal) score has come back a point, I suspect we will never regain the level we achieved at the high point in 1972," Cross said.

This year's scores are the first to be reported on the SAT's recentered score scale, designed to raise the average score back to 500 and make the scores more statistically sound. Comparison scores also were converted to the new scale.

Jeanne Allen, director of the Center for Education Reform, said the SAT has been rendered useless as a barometer of college freshmen performance because of the change in scoring and 1994 revisions that gave students more time on some parts, let them use calculators and dropped testing on antonyms.

"The changes make it almost impossible for the lay person to determine whether or not children are actually doing better," Ms. Allen said.

Seppy Basili, director of pre-college programs for Kaplan Educational Centers, a New York-based test coaching company, disagreed, saying the scoring changes were statistically valid.

Last year, it was not clear whether SAT scores rose because of changes in the test format, or if students prepared more for the test, he said. Rising scores again this year confirms that students are doing more preparation and getting better marks, he said.

However, Robert Cohen, president of the New York-based Princeton Review, which also coaches test-takers, dismissed the SAT results, saying they "don't tell us anything about American education."

Students from higher-income families often do better on the test because "the language of the SAT is upper-middle class," he said. Higher test scores might actually mean that fewer low-income students, who often are members of minorities, are taking the test because they cannot afford to go to college, he said.



SAT scores up slightly

In the first year with a recentered score scale, the average SAT math score rose 2 points. The average score on the verbal section rose 1 point.