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Georgia SAT scores in the basement

By Johnny Jackson

Georgia's SAT scores are the worst in the nation, slipping even with neighboring South Carolina which it outpaced last year. Clayton County's scores are worse than the state, dropping 10 points in one year. The good news is some schools in the county showed improvements this year.

"We are disappointed to see that our composite score on the SAT has declined and we are fully aware that our overall performance is not where we want it to be," said Barbara Pulliam, superintendent of schools. "The SAT data will be included in our overall review of how we teach our children.

But she said some things are under way to raise these scores.

"By improving academic rigor, by increasing the number of advance placement courses, by implementing such programs as the International Baccalaureate curriculum, by ensuring that our students can read for comprehension, we are building a foundation that can lead to a better performance by our students on such tests as the SAT."

In the midst of the bad education news comes some other small victories to cheer.

The good news is that the average composite SAT score in the state increased by six points in Georgia.

Both South Carolina and Georgia actually improved their scores from the previous year, but not enough to climb up the SAT score list. With the highest possible score at 1,600, Georgia's average increased six points, from 987 in 2004 to 993 this year. South Carolina, which dropped three points last year, had a bigger gain, though - from 986 to 993.

Students in Clayton County scored a collective 891 (443 verbal, 448 math).

Clayton State University averaged an SAT score of 994 for full-time incoming freshmen, seven points higher than the 987 state average the same year.

Clayton County experienced a 10-point decrease over scores posted in 2004, following a year when the district posted an improvement in overall scores.

However, 2005 graduates of Mt. Zion, Riverdale, and Lovejoy high schools out scored their counterparts as far as score improvements.

Mt. Zion demonstrated a 52-point gain in composite score at 926. Riverdale gained 33 points, reflecting a 874 composite score. Lovejoy scored 911, a 12-point improvement from 2004.

Jonesboro High School scored an average 966 composite (479 verbal, 487 math), the highest in the county.

According to schools spokesman Charles White, none of the county's participating high schools matched or surpassed the national standard of 1,026 or the state standard of 993.

There may be several reasons for the disappointing numbers, White said. He figured that mobility rates and language obstacles greatly impacted the SAT returns in metro-Atlanta. In fact, this school district has recorded more than 65 different languages spoken. He said many students in the county have a limited English proficiency.

"We really try to encourage everyone to have the opportunity to go to college. We encourage all our students to take the SAT," he said, explaining the large participation rate of students taking the test locally compared to other districts and states with lower participation rates. The College Board disclaims that some states have a much lower participation rates than others, possibly pertaining mostly to college-bound students.

"We anticipate seeing the impact of KAPLAN training in the spring of 2006," White said about a new course offered to students to help enhance their capability to take the SAT. He said performance-based standards can do nothing but help students on standardized tests. Though he doesn't know if that will have an immediate impact, he hopes it will have a positive impact.

Tuesday afternoon Georgia Superintendent Kathy Cox responded likewise.

"This is not just about rankings," Cox said. "We must help our students improve these scores so they will have the chance to go to the best colleges in the state and the nation."

Schools in the District of Columbia had the lowest overall average score, 968. Iowa topped the list with 1,204, followed by Illinois with 1,200 and North Dakota with 1,195. The national average was 1,028, up two points from 2004.

Georgia and South Carolina fell only a few points shy of passing Texas' 995 or Florida's 996.

The College Board, which has administered the SATs since 1926, and experts strongly discourage using the test scores to compare educational achievement from state to state. That's because the percentage of high school juniors and seniors who take the test varies widely - from 92 percent in New York to 4 percent in North Dakota and Mississippi. In fact, nine of the 10 states with the highest scores had participation rates of 10 percent or less, meaning that only their most serious students took the test. In most of those states, the competing ACT is more popular.

Georgia is tied for sixth in the nation for SAT participation, with 75 percent of last year's high school graduates taking the test. South Carolina finished 14th, with 64 percent.

Comparing state SAT scores "doesn't mean that much," said Les Sternberg, the dean of the College of Education at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

"The public simply looks at the score and where one falls in terms of a total alignment - we're at the bottom or second from the bottom - and they make these judgment calls where all of the data is not clearly understood," he said.

Regardless, politicians, education officials and others frequently cite the scores, which, fair or not, go a long way toward creating public perception about how a state's schools are doing.

In Georgia, Gov. Sonny Perdue blasted his predecessor, Roy Barnes, for low scores during their 2002 gubernatorial campaign and the state's schools Superintendent Cox vowed to make increasing the scores a top priority.

"We recognize that people use this score as a comparison and Governor Perdue and Superintendent Cox have not shied away from that," said Dana Tofig, a spokesman for Cox. "But we are really trying to stay focused on the improvement we're seeing and what we can do to improve even further."

On Tuesday, Perdue said he was encouraged by the net gain in Georgia students' scores. He said sample tests scores from high school students this year "bode very well for the future" - particularly in the written essay section.

"These things demographically move very slowly but I'm proud of the progress that we're making," he said at the Southern Governors Association conference in Greensboro, Ga. "I just hope that we'll continue. I think our high schools understand the importance of scoring well and I believe we'll make good progress."

Still, some in Georgia say its embarrassing that the state has slipped back to last place - especially since leaders have made climbing up the list such a priority.

"This governor made that the litmus test, and then has not done anything to change it," said state House Democratic Leader Dubose Porter of Dublin, who blamed Perdue for cutting school funding and postponing a Barnes initiative that would have lowered class sizes.

Meanwhile, South Carolina State Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum celebrated her state's gains.

"I'm pleased to see this latest increase, and especially pleased that we're still improving at such a fast pace," she said. "Just six years ago the gap between South Carolina and the national average was 62 points. Today, we've narrowed that margin to only 35 points. That is solid, steady progress."

Since 1999, when Georgia's average total score was 969, the state's score has increased 23 points. Georgia had finished last among states on the SAT for two years before slipping past South Carolina last year.

This year was the first time students took a new SAT test, with a written essay section, higher level math questions and more reading.

(The Associated Press contributed significant state and national information to this story).