During the month of October, Marshall High School becomes one big testing center. All of the freshmen, sophomores and juniors are expected to take the PSAT test, a practice run of the SATs, which measure a student's basic verbal and math abilities and are administered to high-school juniors.
The efforts have worked; Marshall has steadily increased its scores over the past several years, jumping from an average verbal score of 511 in 2000 to 555 for 2003, including a 23-point increase over last year. Similarly, the average math score at the school went from 529 to 569 in the same period, with an increase of 15 points over last year.
"We have students take the PSATs three times before they take the SATs," said Leslie Butz, Marshall principal. "When the scores come back, the counselors work with each student to identify the student's strengths and weaknesses."
In addition, Butz said Marshall has taken a schoolwide approach to the tests with teachers working together to determine what they expect the students to learn, letting students know exactly what is expected of them, stressing reading for pleasure, focusing on critical thinking skills and even doing warm-up exercises each morning in the form of SAT-like questions.
"Obviously, we're thrilled our students have done so well," Butz said.
In fact, countywide, the incoming senior class has given Fairfax County Public Schools the highest average SAT scores the school system has ever posted. According to figures released by the College Board, which administers the test, last year's juniors averaged a combined 1,110 on the 2003 SATs. The average score in math increased eight points compared to last year and increased six points in the verbal section over last year's numbers.
"Our demographics have changed. Our number of students on free and reduced-price lunch and ESOL [English for speakers of other languages] have increased," said Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech. "Our demographics suggest our scores should be going in the other direction. The work our staff and parents are doing is clearly paying off."
FAIRFAX COUNTY students scored an average of 564 on the math portion compared to the state average of 510 and national average of 519. The same holds true for the verbal, with county students averaging 546 compared to the national average of 507 and state average of 514, according to the College Board figures.
The school system further breaks down the information, subtracting out non-FCPS students who took the test at county school sites or juniors who are no longer in the school system, and by ethnic designation. The strictly county-student figures show an average verbal score of 557 and a math score of 575.
Both verbal and math scores for all ethnic groups met or exceeded the national and state averages. County black and white students scored the highest, by 45 points, over the national and state marks in the math section. The county's Hispanic students' average verbal score was 44 points higher than the state and national averages, the largest of all the ethnic groups for that portion of the test.
Domenech said 48 percent of the school system's population is minority students, with a breakdown of 16 percent Asian, 14 percent Hispanic, and 12 percent black. In addition, the school system has approximately 28 percent of its students on free or reduced-price lunches, a measure of poverty.
"We have always exceeded the national average," Domenech said.
LIKE MARSHALL, all of the county schools began giving the PSATs to students two years ago as a dry run before the actual tests. Domenech said the practice tests, along with making increasing the SAT test scores a school-system target has led to the best results the school system has ever recorded.
"The PSATs made a big difference. And we're giving additional resources to schools for the test prep," Domenech said. "The PSATs started two years ago, so the first class to take the PSATs took the SATs last year as juniors."
According to the school system's calculations, not all schools had gains however. The revised FCPS figures show Stuart dropped five points on the verbal portion and 14 points on the math portion compared to last year while Centreville and Fairfax each lost a point on the verbal and math respectively. Using the official College Board numbers, Fairfax dropped five points on the math, Lake Braddock fell two points on the verbal and Stuart only dropped five points on the math.
"We'll look at the ones who went down … and will share information from those who had success," Domenech said.
Janice Leslie, principal of Herndon, whose own scores increased slightly in both verbal and math over last year, cautions parents not to read too much into the results.
"Any standardized test score is only one measure of a school," Leslie said. "There is a lot more to a school than a test score."
Leslie said just like individual children it is unrealistic to expect each grade to score the same as the grade prior.
In addition, most parents and students give the SAT scores more weight than colleges and universities do.
"The reality is the SATs score has never been nearly as significant as the academic record, the student's academic history," said Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions at George Mason University. "We do look at the scores. One reason is that students are so obsessed with the SATs, and so are the parents."
Flagel said "far too much" emphasis is placed on standardized test scores. He said from an admissions' standpoint, it is better for a student to have taken difficult courses and receive strong grades than to score high on a standardized test such as the SATs.