While the average reading and math scores on the SAT fell again this year, the test results showed a new gain for girls.
For the first time in a generation, girls outperformed boys on one section of the exam, edging them out by 11 points on the writing portion of the test. The results raise new questions about gender, learning and a test that has become an American rite of passage.
"Since the '70s, we haven't seen women score better than men on the SAT, so that is dramatic … absolutely," said Drew Deutsch, a vice president at Princeton Review, which offers preparation courses for the test.
The test results released Tuesday were the first batch of SAT scores since the exam was revamped to include a graded 25-minute essay. High school junior Ana Merida, who is studying for the test now, said she believes the new test plays to her strengths.
"I can look at the question I am being asked and put my own knowledge and thoughts in the essay, rather than … filling out a bubble," Merida said.
And the essay may be something that may benefit all girls. Neuroscientists say, in general, that girls' brains may be better wired for the demands of open-ended essay questions than those of their male counterparts.
"They tend to have better attention spans, and that is something that the essay question demands," said Dr. Jay Selman at the Columbia University Medical Center. "The essay question also demands a lot of organizational skills -- these arise in large part from the frontal lobe."
And girls tend to perform better on tasks that use that part of the brain.
"Placed in a situation where they have to make a decision, they are going to think about the possibilities and ruminate a little bit more than boys," Deutsch said.
But these qualities are not necessarily an advantage on the rest of the SAT, which brings a barrage of multiple-choice questions for which there is little time to ruminate. And despite the gain for girls this year on one part of the test, boys still score 26 points higher overall.
Ironically, the SAT was designed to help predict how students would do in college. But while boys still score higher on the tests, girls get better college grades.