After two consecutive years of decline, the Beaufort County School District's average SAT score jumped 48 points in 2013.
Four of the school district's five public high schools made gains from last year's scores, according to a report released Thursday by the S.C. Department of Education. Scores at Beaufort High School slid slightly.
The SAT is used as a measure of students' preparedness for college. South Carolina's average, which includes both public- and private- school students, was up five points, to 1,436 on a 2,400-point scale. The national average remained unchanged, at 1,498 points.
The county's public-school students averaged 1,431 on the test, surpassing the state public school average by eight points but trailing the national average by 43.
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"We're pleased with the gains we're seeing and believe we're doing some good things in our schools to help students be college- and career- ready," chief instructional services officer Dereck Rhoads said. "But we still have work to do, and we're still below the national average."
At Beaufort High, the average fell by 16 points to 1,403. However, the school still had the third-highest average score in the district.
Principal Corey Murphy attributed the drop to more unprepared students taking the exam and several very low scores that brought the average down.
The SAT average scores are based on the performance of graduating seniors who take the exam through June. The calculations also use the students' most recent test scores, if they have taken the test multiple times, and not their highest scores.
Murphy said some students might better be suited to the ACT college-entrance exam, which is an achievement test measuring what the student has learned in school. The SAT is more of an aptitude test that measures reasoning and verbal abilities.
He added that the school should steer students toward the test at which they are most likely to excel. The school will continue to offer SAT workshops and practice tests to help students, he added.
South Carolina colleges and universities accept either the ACT or SAT scores for admission, though the SAT is more popular in the state. Beaufort County students' scores on the 2013 ACT, announced in August, rose nearly a point on a 36-point scale from last year.
The number of students districtwide who took the exam was up this year: 712 students, or 65 percent of the district's 1,093 seniors, took the exam; 710 did so in 2012.
Hilton Head High School showed the largest gains in the district on the SAT scores, 69 points, and also had the highest average score at 1,548.
Principal Amanda O'Nan said she's proud of the gains and attributed them to the school's International Baccalaureate program. She said she thinks the higher rigor levels the Hilton Head-area schools have started to incorporate at the elementary and middle school levels also played a role.
"We're striving to make sure every single student is college- and career- ready and open that door for every student," O'Nan said. "For us, (the SAT) is the gatekeeper for many colleges and whether our students will get in, so we need to make sure our kids are competitive, if not exceeding those expectations."
Bluffton High School, Whale Branch Early College High School and Battery Creek High School also posted gains this year. However, Whale Branch still had the district's lowest average at 1,169.
The performance was enough to erase the two years of decline -- the district's average in 2010 was 1,416.
Battery Creek's average score jumped 67 points to 1,332 this year after falling 20 points the year before.
Principal Ed Burnes said he thinks having an SAT consultant come into the school helped students. He also attributed much of the gains to the school's Teacher Advancement Program, which uses student data to build on students' strengths and improve their weaknesses.
Bluffton High Principal Mark Dievendorf said he was very proud of the scores and said it speaks to the long-term achievement plan they have in place and validates the students' hard work.
Whale Branch Principal Priscilla Drake could not be reached for comment.
District superintendent Jeffrey Moss said he has several strategies to help the district continue its improvement in all the test's subject areas -- critical reading, math and writing. Among them are placing students in more advanced classes earlier in their high school careers. Such classes, along with SAT prep programs, help students think critically.
"Although we celebrate all the successes we can celebrate, it is not going to cause us to rest knowing we still have some improving to do," Moss said. "Those schools that have a lot of success can share those strategies with other schools and other teachers to help the whole district."
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.