It might be the biggest test students will ever take.
In Gainesville City Schools and Hall County Schools, the SAT college boards poses a challenge for more than 1,000 students each year. Both school systems saw scores decline this year across the board, except one steady score in writing for Gainesville.
This year, changes are coming to the SAT, and school districts in the area are looking to change their students’ scores, too. School officials and students say the key to bringing up scores is the right preparation.
This year and last, the school systems’ scores fell below state and national averages.
Mean scores for reading:
• Hall: 476
• Gainesville: 457
• Georgia: 490
• Hall: 473
• Gainesville: 450
• Georgia: 485
• Hall: 455
• Gainesville: 446
• Georgia: 475
SAT scores are recorded on a scale from 200 to 800, with additional subscores reported for the essay (from 2-12) and for multiple-choice writing questions (on a 20-80 scale).
Sarah Bell, chief academic officer for Gainesville City Schools, said improving SAT scores is “always a priority.”
“We believe that these tests help send a clear message about how prepared our students are for post-secondary success,” Bell said. “We also want to ensure that every possible door is open for students as they move into their futures.”
J.D. Mutchler, counselor at Gainesville High School, said it’s hard to look at an average score as a reflection of the students who plan to go to four-year colleges.
At Gainesville High, nearly 80 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch plans based on their family’s incomes. These students qualify for two free SAT tests, according to Mutchler.
“So we have quite a few students who are more likely to go to a technical college, but they take the SAT anyway,” he said. “We won’t discourage them from taking it, but they probably aren’t preparing the same way; they’re just taking it because it’s additional testing they can do, and they can do it for free.”
Rachel Dillard, a Gainesville High senior, has taken the SAT twice. She did some private preparation before the first exam in January; she was pleased with her math score but wanted to bring up her reading.
“I felt for reading, I had to practice on my own,” she said. “A tutor couldn’t help that much ... I mostly do books anyway, and the full-length practice tests are really the best way to improve your score.”
Classmate Max Sumner has taken it three times, and said he did maybe two hours of online test prep before the first test.
“After I took the first one, I got the scores back and my writing score was much lower than the rest of my scores,” said Sumner, who is applying to Duke University, Vanderbilt University, Georgia Tech and a few other schools. “So then I had someone help me with my writing section.”
Terry Sapp, Hall high school improvement specialist, said score improvement is a constant priority for the county system.
“The challenge is either finding time in the student’s schedule or after school hours to take a preparation course,” Sapp said. “Preparation courses are often structured to meet several sessions over an extended period of time with multiple practice test opportunities; therefore, a test preparation program requires an extended commitment from students.”
Beginning next March, the SAT will be a different test. The new version includes free test prep, removes penalties for wrong answers and reworks the reading and writing sections to be more “evidence-based.”
In the writing section, this means students will read a passage and write their responses based on the passage, instead of answering a general question.
Bell is optimistic about the changes, saying it sounds “as if it is a step in the right direction.”
“Evidence-based reading and writing and math problem-solving opportunities are already tenets of our classroom instruction; so hopefully, the test will be more aligned with the daily work of the school,” she said. “We see this as a good move.”
Finding a solution
The changes to the SAT are not enough to bring local scores above state and national averages, however.
Bell said there are several ways to improve student performance on the test, including using data from the PSAT preparatory exam and strengthening instruction in the classroom.
Sapp agreed, saying Hall schools take PSAT results, map them by subject content to specific high school courses and determine where the tested material falls in the classroom lesson.
Gainesville offers online SAT prep courses, as well as the new, free test prep from Khan Academy, open to all students across the nation and designed with the new SAT in mind.
Sapp said preparation is key to success.
“In my experience, I find that many students do not prepare adequately for the test,” she said. “Assumptions are often made that because students have completed a high school course sequence, they are prepared for the SAT.”
Gainesville High senior Katherine Anderson has taken the SAT four times, and is taking it again in November with Dillard. Anderson said she keeps trying to bring up her scores to earn a scholarship to Mercer University.
“I took the Kaplan online, individual test prep,” she said. “I did it once, but didn’t finish it. So now I’m restarting it again. It’s a lot. It’s videos, practices tests, practice quizzes.”
In Hall, if enough students request an SAT prep course, each high school can offer a semester-long course. But Sapp said students must be engaged and interested in improving their scores.
Sumner said that even for the best students, it can be hard to fit in time for complete SAT prep.
“It’s a four-hour test,” he said. “People don’t understand that it’s a marathon of a test. You walk in, half-asleep on a Saturday morning to take this test.”
Dillard agreed. “There’s not a lot of time to study,” she said. “You’re going to do your classwork first and then SAT.”
“And college applications, too.”
Though some Gainesville and Hall students have struggled with the test, nearby Forsyth County Schools are state and national leaders when it comes to the SAT.
The district adopted the 2400 Challenge in 2008, which offered students extensive SAT prep. The district said student performance on the SAT is an “indicator of quality learning and school system excellence,” and therefore improving scores meant students’ overall education improved as well.
Forsyth stopped implementing the challenge two years ago, according to Jennifer Caracciolo, director of public information and communications.
“However we do credit that collaborative for laying the groundwork to get us where we are with the test scores,” she said.
Sapp said she can’t predict how the changes to the SAT will affect student performance next year, but the most important thing is making sure students are prepared.
“As with any test,” Sapp said, “the better prepared the student is for the test, the more likely the student is to perform well.”