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Testing’s Pains & Gains

Testing’s Pains & Gains
Southern states see increase in the number of students taking SAT, ACT, as well as in test scores, but some states get it and some don’t
By Kendra Hamilton


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Far more high school seniors in Southern states are taking the SAT and ACT, and scores have shown improvement — dramatic improvement in some states — over the last decade. But there’s bad news for the region, too, in an analysis of test scores just released by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB).

For example, students in the region are not yet at parity with others in the nation. Indeed, seven of the 16 states the SREB studied are still among the bottom 10 nationally, according to “ACT and SAT Scores in the South: The Challenge to Lead.”

States have made no progress in closing achievement gaps. Between 1998 and 2002, no state narrowed the gap between Black and White students and only four states — Florida, Louisiana, Maryland and Virginia — narrowed the gap between Latinos and Whites.

“We’ve made significant gains, but we have a long way to go,” says Dr. Joan Lord, director of educational policies for the SREB. “We’ve got some SREB states — Maryland and Virginia come to mind — that are playing at a national level. But unfortunately, there are far too many states in that 41st-to-50th range — the bottom rung nationally. So the question we have to ask ourselves is, what are we going to do to bring those states along?”

If any one state stands out as a star in the SREB report, it’s South Carolina. The state posted huge back-to-back gains in SAT scores over two decades, following up a 40-point increase in the average score from 1982-1992 with a 43-point gain from 1992-2002.

In addition, South Carolina was one of only three states — Georgia and Virginia were the other two — that posted any achievement gains for Black students. “Considerable energy has been devoted to increasing student achievement,” notes Dr. Gail Morrison, director of academic affairs and licensing for the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education.

Fired up by its dismal showing in national rankings for much of the ’80s, the state moved to increase both its high school graduation and college prerequisites, she says. The graduation standard went from 20 to 24 Carnegie units and the college standard went from 16 to 20 units — moves that drew groans both at the college and K-12 level when they were implemented in 1988.

State authorities followed up that move with a broad-range attack. The Department of Education stiffened the core curriculum. The higher ed commission established early intervention programs beginning as early as sixth grade. At the high school level, meanwhile, the state began requiring PSATs — and using them as diagnostic tools. Every South Carolina high school was given a mandate to offer AP courses, and every public college required to accept the scores for credit.

Then, too, there was the critical change — “an exponential explosion in the availability of financial aid,” Morrison says. “We were one of two states nationally that had no state aid 10 years ago. Now we have both merit- and need-based programs, and that’s made a tremendous difference, particularly for kids from disadvantaged families.

“If there’s no money available for school, and if no one in your family has gone beyond high school, then you very likely won’t dare to dream the dream. But now kids know if they perform they have a chance at that scholarship.”

But Morrison won’t go so far as saying that the state has turned the corner — at least not yet. “The news is great, but we still have a long way to go,” she says. “Our scores are still lower than the national average. We still have a gap with minority students and Whites — particularly with our growing Hispanic population that was invisible until the last five years.”

Morrison’s areas of concern are replicated in state after state around the SREB region. Yes, the SREB states are increasing their test scores. Thirteen of the 16 states saw higher scores on either the SAT or ACT — and this in spite of the fact that all 13 increased the numbers of students they tested, a factor that usually has the effect of lowering scores. Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky — the states with score declines — significantly expanded the number of students taking the tests.

But parity still seems a long way off. No SREB state surpassed the national average on either the ACT or SAT. Only Maryland, which narrowly missed making the top 10, matched the national average of 1020 on the SAT.

Even more dishearteningly, no state in which the ACT was the dominant test ranked higher than 40 — that state was Oklahoma, followed by West Virginia (41), Arkansas (42), Alabama (43), Kentucky (46), Tennessee (47), Louisiana (49) and Mississippi (50).

Just as disturbing, according to the SREB’s Lord, is the issue of achievement gaps. “We are making strides in the SREB states, but not in achievement gaps,” she says.

Eleven states showed gains for White students, the report shows. But Black student achievement fell in every ACT-dominant state except Tennessee, where there was no change.

The SAT states — which, it should be noted, test somewhat smaller numbers of students — did somewhat better. There were Black student gains in three states, and South Carolina again was the star, with an 18-point improvement in African American scores. But because White student scores climbed even faster, the achievement gap actually widened. And the gap between White and Hispanic students — White student scores rose 24 points while Hispanic student scores fell 43 points — was the worst in the region.

In general, from 1998-2002, no SREB state narrowed the gap between Black and White students, and only four — Florida, Louisiana, Maryland and Virginia — narrowed the gap between White and Hispanic students.

So, if one asks, “Are Southern students ready for college when they graduate from high school?” the answer, based on the SREB’s report, seems to be, “It depends.”

It depends very much on race if one is looking at achievement gap data. And it also depends on geography. There’s a clear geographic clustering of SAT versus ACT states: SAT states tend to be in the Southeast; ACT states tend to be in the Deep South.

But even more importantly, there’s a clustering based on prosperity. Seven of the eight ACT states have child poverty rates that are above 25 percent. Among the SAT states, meanwhile, seven of the eight states have child poverty rates that are below that 25 percent. And poverty has long been an indicator for educational achievement.

Thus, one sees a clear achievement gap between ACT and SAT states. In SAT-giving states, for example, a large majority of students — more than 80 percent — can meet the benchmark for admission to a non-selective institution, i.e., 400 on both the math and verbal sections of the test. Two-thirds, meanwhile, can meet the benchmark for admission to a public college.

Among ACT-giving states, by contrast, no state scored better than 74 percent on the comparable non-selective benchmark — 17 points — while only 53 percent of Mississippi students could hit that mark. The numbers of students capable of rising to the next benchmark — the 19 that would ensure admission to a public college — plunged to between 36 percent and 55 percent.

Clearly, far too many SREB states are not yet ensuring college readiness for far too many students.

“By any measure, we’re doing better than we were before. But we have some work to do before we meet our challenge to lead the nation,” Lord says.

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