Despite our collective fixation on average SAT scores, those averages derive from individual efforts, and that's where efforts to improve performance must focus.
That individual effort also can explain the variation in scores from year to year. No two students nor groups of students are alike.
Still, the across-the-board downward trend this year in average SAT scores at the state, district and school levels is disappointing. The Beaufort County School District's average score -- 1,397 on a 2,400-point scale -- trails the state average of 1,436 and the national average of 1,500 points. It is down 17 points from the 2010 average.
Scores were down at Beaufort, Battery Creek, Bluffton and Hilton Head Island high schools. The new Whale Branch Early College High School had no graduating seniors in 2011, so no scores were reported. Bluffton High's average was off by just a point, from 1,396 to 1,395, while the other schools saw more significant decreases.
Scores on the ACT, the other college entrance exam in the U.S., were off slightly this year.
Superintendent Valerie Truesdale attributed the district's drop to an increase in the number of students taking the test. About 67 percent of the graduating class, or 757 students, took the test in 2011. That's up from 60 percent, or 737 students, in 2010.
The number of test-takers in 2010 was adjusted by the College Board, which administers the test, to include results of May and June SATs. The board began including those results this year after noticing more students took the SAT for the first time in those months. The previous cutoff was March. Adding those scores worsened state averages.
Hilton Head High's average was down 34 points from 2010, from 1,507 to 1,473. Principal Amanda O'Nan said that could be because it had the largest percentage of graduating seniors in the district taking the test -- 92 percent of 225 students.
"We encourage every kid to keep that door open to college and take the SAT," O'Nan said.
Hilton Head High, like all district high schools, makes an extra effort to boost SAT scores.
A twice-yearly, school-hosted weekend SAT course, run by test-preparation company Power Score, usually has about 50 students per session. The school offers scholarships for the courses, which cost about $350. Hilton Head High teachers host weekly SAT tutoring sessions at Barnes & Noble, and the school sells used SAT study guides at a discount.
Battery Creek High principal Edmond Burnes' comment on his school's 2011 test scores reflects the reality of individual effort. Burnes said the drop from 1,310 to 1,285 at his school was expected since standardized test scores for the 2011 graduating class consistently lagged other classes.
"We are by no means satisfied," Burnes said. "Unfortunately, we projected that."
Beaufort High principal Dan Durbin said lower participation in test preparation electives and workshops could explain the school's 25-point drop in its average score, from 1,406 to 1,381. When the school saw gains in 2010, more students participated.
Again, individual effort counts.
But before an SAT prep class, online practice test or study guide can be of any help, the student must have a wide base of knowledge. That foundation is laid well before high school and is built upon each year with classes that are academically rigorous.
The best preparation for college entrance exams, which are supposed to be predictors of college performance, comes from keeping students academically challenged and fully engaged through their senior year. That comes down to individual effort, where it all starts.