SAT decline fails to worry experts School, test officials say scores still above state, national average

September 02, 1998|By Jackie Powder and Mary Maushard | Jackie Powder and Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

After three years of improvement, SAT scores for Carroll's 1998 graduates dropped by six points.

But school officials and testing experts say the decrease is not cause for concern because the scores are significantly above the state and national averages, and over the past five years students' scores have shown a strong upward trend.

"I consider our results to be positive," said Melissa Leahy, coordinator of Carroll County public schools' newly created Office of Continuous Improvement.

"Variables and fluctuations can occur from year to year, and I don't really think the fact that we have dropped a bit is something significant," Leahy said.

Carroll seniors who took the college admissions test scored an average 1,044 for the combined verbal and math portions of the test, compared with last year's average score of 1,050. The results reflect the scores of 1998 seniors who took the tests during their high school years through April 1998.

"I'm not concerned at this point about a drop in scores," said Superintendent William H. Hyde. "I think the SAT can be used as a good diagnostic tool to go back to the high schools and look at the scores on each student and what programs they were in."

James N. McPartland, director of the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at the Johns Hopkins University, said that Carroll's scores over a five-year period indicate an upward trend.

"It seems to me there is kind of a steady progress," he said. "It's dangerous to read too much in year-to-year results."

The 907 students who took the SAT represent 55 percent of the county's graduating seniors for the 1997-1998 school year.

Carroll students showed a one-point gain on the math portion of the test, from 525 to 526. Performance on the verbal section, however, dropped seven points, from 525 to 518.

Overall, Maryland's scores rose one point in math, from 507 to 508, and fell a point in verbal abilities, from 507 to 506, while the number of students taking the test rose -- by 1 percent -- for the first time in five years.

In the Baltimore area, Howard County students continued to top other area systems, while Harford County students made the largest gains over 1997.

Nationally, scores on the math test increased from 511 to 512, the highest score in 27 years, according to the College Board, which administers the test. Scores on the verbal section remained the same as last year at 505, so the state remains slightly above the national average on the verbal portion and somewhat below in math.

Maryland's combined cumulative score of 1,014 makes it the second highest-performing state in the mid-Atlantic, surpassed only by West Virginia, which had a combined score of 1,038. Only 18 percent of students there take the test, however.

"These scores reflect the reality of education in Maryland -- that each child can learn and excel and succeed," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

State officials attributed the drop in verbal scores to a decrease in the number of students studying grammar and composition and an increase in the number of test-takers who have limited proficiency in English.

"We have certainly anticipated the problems in reading and language skills indicated," said Grasmick. "We believe that the actions we are taking today to bolster reading instruction will pay rich dividends," she added, referring to the growing emphasis on phonics in reading instruction and changes in state regulations that will require teachers to take more courses in reading.

About 35,800 Maryland high school students took the tests in 1997, putting Maryland among 12 states that have at least 65 percent participation in the national college entrance exam.

Like other groups of Maryland students, more African-American students took the test in 1998 than in previous years. But their performance continued to trail other ethnic groups. Scores among black public school students fell this year from 433 to 429 on the verbal part and from 421 to 419 on math.

White students' scores increased slightly: verbal rose from 532 to 533 this year, and math increased from 537 to 541. Scores of American Indian and Hispanic students also declined this year, while Asian-American students increased their scores.

The SAT is used to predict a student's ability to do college-level work. Carroll school officials say they use the results, with other tests, to identify long-term trends.

Jeffrey Penn, a College Board spokesman, said factors such as class size and the percentage of students who took the SAT influence scores from year to year, and may not reflect long-term trends.

"Small changes in scores up or down may not be due to an improvement or a decline in a school system's educational effort," said Penn, commenting on Carroll's scores.

Penn said the Carroll school system "shouldn't draw too many conclusions" from a six-point difference in SAT scores.

McPartland said a critical factor in interpreting SAT results is the number of students at each school who take the test.

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