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Education: SAT strategies make it hard to find meaning in scores

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The average score for Waccamaw High seniors on the SAT college entrance exam last year dropped 75 points, according to results released this week. Not only did a record number of the class of 2012 take the exam, they took it a record number of times.

“It’s showing a renewed interest in college and higher education, and I can’t complain about that,” principal David Hammel said.

But it makes it hard to explain how a class that attracted over $4.4 million in scholarship offers and had over a third of its members graduate with honors saw SAT scores fall. “It’s a matter of perception,” Hammel said.

At Waccamaw High, 87 percent of seniors took the SAT last year. That was up 10 percent from 2011. The drop in the average composite score for the three-part exam put Waccamaw below the national average for public school students. At 1,459, the school’s average was still well above the state averages for all students and for those in public schools.

But the College Board, which administers the test, only reports the last test taken in its national data. Between 15 and 20 percent of Waccamaw seniors took the test more than four times, Hammel said.

“The second time, [scores] will go up. After that, it’s a crap shoot,” he said.

And those who take the SAT multiple times are often looking to improve their score in just one area, since they only need to report their best scores in each when they apply to college, Hammel said.

“We’re trying to figure out exactly what every kid’s best score was,” he said.

The College Board uses 1,550 as a benchmark to predict that a student will have at least a B average in college.

The biggest drop in average scores at Waccamaw High came in writing, which fell from 504 to 470. The average reading score fell 27 points to 484, and the math average fell 14 points to 505. A perfect score is 800 on each section.

The drop at Waccamaw led the district composite score average lower by 56 points. At Georgetown High, the composite average fell 66 points to 1,275. The number of seniors taking the test rose 4 percent to 60 percent.

At Andrews High, where the number of seniors taking the test rose to 44 percent from 31 percent in 2011, the average composite score fell 52 points to 1,267.

Carvers Bay High recorded a 5 point rise in scores to 1,338, but only 30 percent of seniors took the test, a decline of 11 percent.

Anticipating this week’s announcement, the Georgetown County School District said last week it has dropped an online SAT prep program in favor of teacher-led prep classes. A growing percentage of students are taking the exam, which school officials note is designed to predict performance in college-level classes.

“There is no substitute for face-to-face rigorous instruction,” said Patti Hammel, the district’s director of student performance. “Anytime you find the number of test takers increasing there is usually a decline in the overall averages.”

In the state’s public schools, the average composite score fell 5 points to 1,422. The national average for public schools fell 2 points to 1,498.

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais said the gap between national and state scores in reading and writing continues to be a concern. “Addressing the reading gap in elementary school must be our top priority because reading is fundamental to everything else in a student’s education,” he said.

In recent years, Georgetown County schools have shifted to a “balanced reading” curriculum that included more non-fiction material.

The College Board also announced results this week for Advanced Placement tests. The Waccamaw High results were available, but David Hammel said the number of students who took the courses rose along with the scores.

The school had about 60 percent score high enough to earn college credit.

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