Three of Beaufort County's five public high schools made modest gains on 2012 SAT scores, but scores at Battery Creek and Whale Branch Early College high schools brought down the overall average 14 points from last year.
Scores on the test, used as a measure of students' preparedness for college, were released Monday. South Carolina's average was down five points, to 1,431 on a 2,400-point scale. The national average fell two points, to 1,498.
The county's public-school students averaged 1,383 on the test, trailing the state average by 48 points and the national average by 115.
The 14-point slide from last year also marked the district's second consecutive year of decline.
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At Battery Creek High School, the average fell 20 points, to 1,265.
Principal Ed Burnes attributed the drop to more unprepared students taking the test and more attention paid schoolwide toward raising scores on end-of-course exams and the High School Assessment Program among ninth- and 10th-graders. All S.C. students must pass the HSAP in reading and math to graduate high school.
"We put a lot of effort into improving scores of the ninth- and 10th-graders, ... and we were hoping that upper-level students would hold their own," he said.
The SAT average scores are based on scores of graduating seniors who take the exam through June.
Battery Creek plans to emphasize writing skills -- the area its scores dropped the most -- and bring in professional consultants to offer student workshops.
At Whale Branch, the first graduating class at the new school had the district's lowest average, at 1,155.
"We're hoping for a much better score next year or a really good increase," said principal Priscilla Drake. The school will provide workshops for a small fee during the school day and require participation by students planning to take the SAT, Drake said. The curriculum will be updated to emphasize writing. As at Battery Creek, Whale Branch students struggled the most with that part of the test, averaging 373 of a possible 800 points. The number of students districtwide taking the exam was down this year: 710 students took the test in 2012, but 757 took it in 2011.
Scores at three district high schools are up. Beaufort High, Hilton Head Island High and Bluffton High schools all posted gains. Beaufort High's scores jumped the most, up 38 points to an average of 1,419.
Beaufort High principal Corey Murphy and Bluffton High principal Mark Dievendorf said they're proud of their schools' gains.
Dievendorf said increased focus on writing in all classes, whether band, math or English, could account for some of the boost. The school's writing averages increased by 12 points to 462.
"We're feeling positive about the fact that all our hard work is paying off," Dievendorf said.
Murphy, in his first school year as principal, said Beaufort High plans to implement some of Bluffton High's techniques, including increased focus on writing. The school has also started free after-school workshops to strengthen skills before the exam.
Attempts to reach Hilton Head High principal Amanda O'Nan were unsuccessful.
The district's chief instructional officer, Dereck Rhoads, said preparation courses would be made more accessible and that schools will make better use of student feedback from Preliminary SAT and ACT tests.
At Whale Branch, staff will try to identify students who struggled with the HSAP and end-of-course exams and discourage them from taking the SAT, Drake said. Burnes said Battery Creek students whose goal is to attend a technical college might be steered toward the ACT instead of the SAT.
South Carolina colleges and universities accept either the ACT or SAT scores for admission. The SAT is more popular in South Carolina.
Beaufort County students' scores on the ACT, announced in August, dipped slightly for the second consecutive year.