SAT scores show gaps in Baltimore County schools

Systemwide, the district is hitting its goals, but some schools are slipping behind

October 22, 2005|By LIZ F. KAY | LIZ F. KAY,SUN REPORTER

Judging by SAT scores, a trip around Baltimore's Beltway would reveal a wide range of scholastic skills and ambitions among Baltimore County's high school seniors.

At Timonium's Dulaney High School, more than two-thirds of seniors in the Class of 2005 took the SAT during the past school year, with an average cumulative score topping 1100. About half of Milford Mill Academy's 12th-graders in the northwest took the college entrance exam, and those who did scored an average of 813. Barely one in four Dundalk High School seniors took the test, earning 931 on average.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston says the scores show where the school system needs to target its efforts to give all students opportunities to succeed, regardless of such circumstances as their families' financial status or education level. School officials say they want to boost academic skills and change attitudes long before the end of high school -- tutoring ninth-graders and taking first-graders to visit colleges.

"The system isn't broken," though there are areas that need improvement, Hairston said.

The county school district's "Blueprint for Progress" sets a goal for all high schools to meet or exceed the national average reading, mathematics and writing scores on the SAT or ACT, another college entrance exam, by 2012. Another goal calls for surpassing the nationwide participation rate.

As a school system, the county appears on track to reach its aims; 55 percent of the Class of 2005 took the test and earned a cumulative average of 1025. The College Board, which administers the SAT, said in August that nationally 48 percent of the Class of 2005 took the test, earning average scores of 520 in math and 508 on the verbal section.

However, the county average does not reveal some stark differences in the scores from individual high schools.

High schools such as Hereford and Towson in the central county have some of the highest SAT participation and cumulative average scores of more than 1000. About half the students at Perry Hall and Parkville in the northeast and Randallstown and Milford Mill in the northwest take the test. The eastern schools exceeded their western counterparts by about 200 points.

Fewer than a third of high school seniors at southeastern schools Chesapeake, Dundalk, Overlea and Sparrows Point took the SAT.

Others take community college placement tests instead. But many two- and four-year colleges base scholarships on SAT scores.

Hairston and other school officials pointed to curriculum changes, including the elimination of lower-level courses and purchase of online practice tools. Those who don't have computers work after school at a homework center twice a week, Chesapeake Principal David L. Lloyd said.

A quarter of last school year's seniors took the college entrance exam at Chesapeake, up from 18.6 percent in 2004. Lloyd said the school held three lunches this week to encourage promising sophomores, juniors and seniors to take the SAT and to keep their grades up.

The school also uses grants for an SAT summer camp. Like other high schools, Chesapeake also pulls students out of class for an "SAT blitz" -- a day of drills just before the test.

Part of the challenge stems from attitudes about higher education. Some families don't emphasize it or feel they can't afford it. But today's teenagers can no longer rely on the sort of manufacturing jobs that sustained generations in eastern Baltimore County, school officials say.

As a result, the southeastern schools are pushing college awareness early. First-graders at Mars Estates Elementary School recently did an online research project about colleges and then took tours of six local campuses, said Jean Satterfield, assistant area superintendent. Some high schools invite eighth-graders and their families to lunch and breakfast to learn about higher education.

Some county high schools also have AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, programs that emphasize study and motivational skills for midrange students.

Randallstown and Milford Mill high schools have two of the lowest total average scores in the county, but "the pipeline is stronger than it's ever been," said Scott Gehring, area assistant superintendent. All elementary schools that feed into those northwest area high schools met performance targets on state tests last year.

"High school is the end of the journey," Gehring said. "If we help kids as early as elementary school to write well and think well, then the SAT will take care of itself."

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