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SAT Uncertainty

Rising scores don’t tell whole story. Achievement gap could be widening on college entrance exams.

Improving test scores usually means jubilation for students and school officials. But when it comes to the Scholastic Aptitude Test, improvement isn’t just measured in higher scores.

“I’m withholding judgment as to how good the news is,” said Kathy Wills, Arlington Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for planning and evaluation.

According to results released by the College Board on August 26, graduates of Arlington’s class of 2003 scored higher on the SAT than any class since the 1992 restructuring of the SAT scoring system. Average score on the verbal section rose 14 points, from 523 to 537, while math scores improved six points, from 529 to 535. That’s a combined score of 1072 out of the possible 1600, a 20-point improvement over 2002.

“We’re thrilled that the scores have gone up,” said Judy Sullivan, PTA president for Washington-Lee High School. “I think they’re working very hard on having a really good academic program.”

Superintendent Robert Smith chalked improvements up to strong teaching, challenging curricula, supportive families and an APS initiative that covers testing expenses for students who wish to take the PSAT, a preparation for the SAT.

WHILE IMPROVED SCORES mean good things for individual students, Wills hesitates to use SAT results to assess countywide progress. Unlike Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests, which are designed to test academic competency for all students in all core subjects, SAT’s aren’t required.

“The students most likely to participate are your highest-achieving students,” said Wills.

Rising scores along with rising participation could indicate that more students are leaving Arlington schools better prepared for college.

But if scores rise while a smaller percentage of graduating seniors take the test, which could show a widening gap between already high-achieving students and their struggling peers.

Although the total number of students taking the SAT increased from 688 in 2002 to 718 in 2003, Wills suspects that’s actually a drop in the percentage of graduating seniors. School officials will know for sure within the next two weeks, after total graduation statistics are calculated.

Nationally, the percentage of seniors taking the SAT increased two percentage points, from 46 to 48. Statewide, that percentage went from 68 to 71.

MINORITY ACHIEVEMENT falls under another question mark when it comes to SAT results. The College Board releases results broken down by ethnic groups, but students are not required to provide information on their ethnicity. This year, 271 students, or 38 percent of the total test-takers, decided not to identify their ethnicity.

That makes reported minority SAT scores somewhat unreliable, Wills said. “They’re of really limited usefulness.”

Among those who did indicate an ethnicity, Hispanic students improved two points on the verbal section but dropped 12 points in math. Black and Asian students improved on both sections. Scores for each ethnic group continue to lag behind those for white students.

AT INDIVIDUAL SCHOOLS, improvement varied. Yorktown and Washington-Lee saw their highest scores in the last five years.

At Wakefield, average combined scores did climb three points, from 926 in 2002 to 929 in 2003. But that’s still 114 points lower than Wakefield students averaged in 1999. Prior to this year, Wakefield’s average score dropped each year since 1999.

Compared to Wakefield’s three-point increase from last year’s scores, average combined scores at Washington-Lee jumped 58 points, from 1036 to 1094, while the average scores at Yorktown climbed 12 points, from 1133 to 1145. Yorktown’s scores have topped the county’s three high schools each of the last five years.

Many Yorktown students opt for SAT preparation courses after school, said Yorktown PTA president Linda Kosovych. Improved SAT scores show that Arlington teachers are doing their jobs, she said, but an increasingly competitive university admissions system encourages parents to look for an extra edge. “Any points they can gain may mean getting into the top three or four Virginia schools.”