Education's electrocardiogram

February 02, 1994

In many quarters, the Scholastic Assessment Test, put out by the Educational Testing Service of New Jersey, is seen as the educators' equivalent of an electrocardiogram. In reality, however, it is a less-than-perfect device for monitoring the short-term health of a school system and its students' readiness for college-level work.

Take, for example, the combined verbal and math scores for the 1,600 Howard County high schoolers who took the test prior to graduation last spring. The average score was 969 points, seven points below the previous year's results, but still ahead of the statewide score of 909 and the national average of 902.

The decline in Howard set off alarm bells: Were county high schoolers losing ground academically? No, the statistical decline was more a blip on the screen than educational arrhythmia.

A similar decline occurred in 1988, when the combined average fell from 970 to 960 points. Otherwise, SAT scores in Howard have risen consistently for more than a decade. There is no reason to believe that the trend won't continue.

Howard County public school students, in fact, remain among the state's top performers on the SAT. More important, however, an average of 79 percent of county high schoolers have taken the test in each of the past three years. The statewide average is 66 percent, and the national average only 43 percent. Howard's high participation rate may be the healthiest sign of all, since it stands as a measure of students who are interested in pursuing higher education.

There are, however, other numbers that merit concern in terms of the county's SAT scores. Once again, African-American students ranked last in overall scores among the four racial groups, with an average of 824 points. The school system ought to address this problem. For one thing, the schools ought to make sure students understand the importance of the test, and the same is also true for African-American parents.

Asian students ranked first, as before, with 1,016 points. Most interestingly, Hispanic-American students in Howard bucked the national trend and outperformed white students. Hispanic students averaged 1,006 points, and whites, 997 points.

Clearly, the best trend that could develop among Howard's SAT scores is one that builds on the school system's successes and propels all students to uniformly high achievement.

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