SAT preparation scores points

The Education Beat

Payoff: An after-school program started by an adviser and the track coach at Mergenthaler Vocational- Technical High is pointing students toward test success.

March 01, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT'S AS THOUGH DeAnne Byerly were talking about pork belly futures.

"Earl and Alicia are both over 1,240," she says. "You know, Alicia started a year and a half ago at 890. Brandon's at 1,120. April's at 1,130. It's so exciting!"

Byerly, a student adviser at Mergenthaler Vocational- Technical High School in Northeast Baltimore, isn't talking about pork bellies, but she is talking about futures.

These are SAT scores, vitally important mileposts in a student's academic life. Good SAT scores are worth admission to the best schools and, equally important, worth thousands in academic and athletic scholarships.

Yet in recent years only a trickle of Baltimore public high school students have excelled on the SATs, and these have been from citywide schools like Poly, City and the School for the Arts. At the zoned and vocational high schools, 700 (on a scale topped at 1,600) is a typical score, even for students with high grades. But it's not a ticket to anything.

Two years ago, Byerly and Mervo track coach Freddie Hendricks set out to change that. With the sponsorship of CollegeBound, a nonprofit organization that helps city kids get into college, and seed money from the Abell Foundation, the two established an after-school program at Mervo designed to boost SAT scores and guide students through the Byzantine process of college application.

First-year results proved what Hendricks and his track stars knew about athletics: Success is a matter of training and technique, honing and shaping a student's raw talent. At the vaunted high schools in Montgomery County, kids know how to approach multiple-choice problems, how to succeed at SAT algebra, how to do those pesky analogies and how to write essays that catch the attention of admissions officials.

And in Montgomery, officials make sure students learn geometry, a mainstay of the SAT math test, before they take the preliminary SAT, the qualifying examination for National Merit Scholarships. In Baltimore, many kids get little geometry before their junior year.

At Mervo, kids in the CollegeBound program report after school or athletic practice for study sessions that last well into the evening with a break for a light meal. They take numerous practice tests and the real SATs as often as possible. Earl Murray III, 17, says he took it nine times.

It's paid off. He and Alicia Wilson (the class valedictorian) are off to college with SATs among the highest in the city. Murray, accepted at eight colleges, started at 810 two years ago and scored 1,240 in January, a 430-point leap.

Senior Ashlee Mayfield, whose score increased from 890 to 1,230 in 18 months, is competing for a Meyerhoff Scholarship at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and for a full scholarship at Morgan State University.

Sophomores Brandon Scott and April Barrett leapt from the 800s to 1,120 and 1,130 in a year. Both attend sessions five days a week, sometimes twice a day, says Byerly.

Some of the students are athletes trying to get grades and board scores to meet the college entrance criteria of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Frustration, says Hendricks, was a motive for his involvement. "I looked around and saw a lot of scholarship money out there," he says, "but we weren't getting much of it. Now we're starting to."

One recent afternoon, the CollegeBound students laugh as they go over analogies (crumb is to bread as cream is to butter?) and learn how to break words into their Greek and Latin roots. One of the first things she learned, says Alicia Wilson, is not to guess wildly. That tip -- that the SAT penalizes for wrong answers but not for blank answers -- boosted her score 30 points, she says.

She and some others have been in these after-school sessions for nearly two years. They've taken the SAT five times on average. Last year, at a school with a reported SAT average of 740, 82 students in the program scored an average of 880, and 17 scored higher than 1,000, according to CollegeBound statistics.

The SAT, designed as a predictor of college success, is severely criticized for having become a gatekeeper. Its content is said to discriminate against poor, inner-city students who lack the vocabulary and higher math skills of their suburban peers.

At Mervo, they're unapologetically playing the SAT game -- and in the process reaping benefits in admissions and scholarships to good colleges.

Playing the game has made going to college a "dream made real," says Alicia Wilson. Craig Spilman, CollegeBound director, agrees. What if every high school student knew not to guess on the SAT? What if more students took the test early and often instead of once, if at all? What if all the high schools got the kind of SAT prepping enjoyed by those that can afford it?

That they don't is another kind of discrimination.

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