The nation's high school class of 2003 achieved the best score on the math section of the SAT (search) exam in at least 36 years, while students' verbal scores hit a 16-year high.

The College Board, which owns the nation's most popular college entrance exam, said Tuesday that this year's high school graduates had an average cumulative score of 1,026 points on the SAT, up six points from 2002. Both the average math (519) and verbal (507) scores were up three points from last year.

The math and verbal sections of the SAT are each graded on 200-800 point scale. A total of 897 students in the United States had a perfect cumulative score of 1,600 this year.

Overall, some 1.4 million students in the class of 2003 took the SAT during their high school career. The nonprofit College Board said 36 percent of those taking the test were minority students, up 6 percent from a decade ago.

"Higher SAT scores, a record number of test-takers, and more diversity add up to a brighter picture for higher education," College Board President Gaston Caperton said in a prepared statement.

"While we certainly need to make more progress, the fact remains that we are clearly headed in the right direction."

This year's average math scores are the highest the College Board could document since 1967. Scores prior to 1995 were recalculated to reflect changes made that year so that the numbers would be comparable to more recent scores. The board was unable to provide comparable scores prior to 1967. The SAT was first given in 1926.

The College Board said the higher scores were due to increased enrollment in advanced math and science courses such as physics, precalculus, calculus and chemistry.

The president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (search) credited teaching methods that make math meaningful.

"(Students are) looking at problems that don't just involve pure calculation and computation-type of mathematics," said Johnny Lott. "They're looking at real-world problem solving."

Female test-takers also have improved notably in math over the last decade, with their average scores increasing 19 points to 503. Male math scores have gone up 13 points over the same period of time to 537.

Females also averaged 503 on the 2003 verbal exam (up a point from last year), while males averaged 512 -- a jump of 5 points from 2002.

The board said 54 percent of the test-takers were female and 46 percent were male.

SAT scores play a role in the admissions process at 80 percent of the nation's colleges and universities.

Along with the ACT (search), the country's second-largest test-maker, the SAT has come under fire from critics who maintain high schools and colleges place too much emphasis on standardized entrance exams. Others contend the tests are unfair to students coming from poorer school districts. Results from both tests this year showed the gap between the scores of white students and non-Asian minorities continues to persist.

To stress the importance of language skills -- verbal scores have improved by seven points compared to a 16-point jump in math proficiency over the last decade -- a mandatory essay will be introduced as part of the SAT exam in 2005.

While high school students have participated in more college preparatory math and science classes since 1993, the board found that enrollment in English composition courses dropped from 79 percent to 66 percent.

"Rigorous preparation in this area is crucial for students' success in college and beyond," Caperton said.