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SAT Scores Up, Mostly

Scores rise overall, but steep drop among black students.

Arlington high school seniors’ average SAT score reached a record high last

year, but school officials were caught off-guard by the sharply lower

performance of the county’s black students.

While students statewide and nationally saw their SAT results drop, the mean

score for Arlington students in both the math and verbal section increased by

three points and one point, respectively.

Last school year Arlington seniors averaged a 544 in reading, a 545 in math and

a 532 on the writing portion of the test, which was included for the first time.

This was the best performance for students since the SAT was reconfigured in

1992.

"Overall the numbers are good," Superintendent Robert Smith said. "These are the

highest scores we’ve ever recorded, so that’s fairly impressive to have happen."

The precipitous drop in the scores of black students tempered school officials’

enthusiasm of the countywide performance. They fell 16 points in the reading

section and 17 points in math.

This was the first class of students to take the revamped SAT, which now

includes the writing section. Other changes made to the test were the removal of

analogies from the portion and the elimination of some higher-level math

questions.

The number of Arlington students taking the test last year dropped by 33, from

813 to 780. But 45 more students took the ACT, school officials said, likely

accounting for the drop in SAT participation.

Two of Arlington’s three high schools saw wild fluctuations in their results

compared to the previous year. Excluding the new writing portion, Wakefield’s

average score plummeted by 77 points, while Washington-Lee’s jumped by 66.

Yorktown’s rose by a more modest seven points.

Gregg Robertson, principal at Washington-Lee, attributed the school’s improved

performance to the dedication of the teachers. "This speaks volumes about the

level of instruction taking place in the classroom," he said. "The teachers have

a ‘whatever it takes’ attitude." Calls to Wakefield officials were not returned.

SCHOOL OFFICIALS said it was normal for high schools to have dramatic swings in

a single year. Nationally, half the schools that had between 100 and 300

students take the test last year — as both Wakefield and Washington-Lee did —

saw their reading scores drop by at least 10 points, said Kathy Wills, the

school system’s director of planning and evaluation.

"When you have such a small number of students, you do expect to see large

differences year to year," Wills added.

School Board Chair Mary Hynes cautioned parents and school staff not to read too

much into the results of a restructured SAT. "It measures a moment in time," she

said. "A new section was added and the test was longer than ever before."

Closing the minority achievement gap has become one of the school system’s top

priorities in recent years, and this year’s SAT results portray a mixed record

in that effort. Asian students’ scores rose by a combined 23 points and

Hispanics by six points, but the drop in black scores is "disheartening" for the

Arlington school community, Wills said.

In Fairfax County, by comparison, combined black SAT scores rose 11 points.

Superintendent Smith said school officials will be conducting a detailed

analysis to find out why black students’ results dropped so sharply one year.

School Board member Dave Foster said the scores prove that more resources must

be devoted to the individual needs of each student, and recommended the school

system provide for greater after-school programs.

"The results [of black students] are an alarm in the night," he added. "It’s too

early to jump to conclusions, but we need to look hard at what we can do

better."