Right fix for SAT scores could help across board

The Beaufort County School District has invested a lot of time and energy touting technology and program innovations at its Whale Branch cluster of schools and lobbying for national recognition.

Such promotion demands an explanation for the SAT performance of students at the cluster's Whale Branch Early College High School. Administrators can't take a bow for the good news and ignore the bad.

In results released this week, three of the county's high schools -- Hilton Head Island, Beaufort and Bluffton high schools -- saw gains on the test designed to help measure students' readiness for college. For that, the district and those schools deserve some praise.

These improvements came as state and national scores declined compared with the previous year. 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.

Unfortunately, the district overall failed to buck the trend. Its average was dragged down by Whale Branch and Battery Creek scores.

The first graduating class at Whale Branch had the district's lowest average -- 1,155 points, 276 points below the state average and 343 points below the national average.

Battery Creek High School's average was 1,265 -- also well below state and national averages. It was a 20-point, single-year slide. Sadly, that decline could have been more precipitous had its student body still included the Whale Branch students, who were moved out of Battery Creek when their school opened in 2010-11.

Principals at the schools indicate they will try to improve SAT performances by emphasizing writing. That holds promise. Battery Creek saw its biggest drop (12 points) from 2011 to 2012 in the writing section. Whale Branch's lowest score was in writing.

Bluffton's and Beaufort's biggest gains were in writing, 12 and 13 points respectively.

Such emphasis has produced good results elsewhere around the country, and intuitively, it makes sense that students who learn to structure sentences and convey more complicated ideas might also learn to structure thoughts in ways applicable to other disciplines.

But if such efforts begin when students reach high school, they begin too late. This problem requires a district-level response.

Further, aspects of the principals' explanations for the scores are discomforting.

Whale Branch's Priscilla Drake suggested the school would discourage seniors who haven't passed their high school assessment test and end-of-course exams from taking the SAT. Sixty-six percent of Whale Branch's seniors took the test, compared with 84 percent at Hilton Head High, 68 percent at Bluffton High, 59 percent at Beaufort High and 52 percent at Battery Creek.

A case can be made for students who haven't passed those key exams to sit out the SAT, since they probably aren't college-bound. But a case also can be made that this masks a problem instead of addressing it.

That case is all the more compelling given the district's decision to affix "Early College" to the school's name, knowing full well what it was implying. These deflating SAT scores tarnish district marketing efforts.

At Battery Creek, principal Ed Burnes attributes his school's drop in scores, in part, to the district's emphasis last year on better preparing underclassmen for other standardized tests. Perhaps that led to some neglect of seniors, whose SAT scores are used to calculate the school and district averages.

But that doesn't explain the 25-point dip at Battery Creek the year before or the fact that three schools managed to improve scores this year while adopting the same emphasis.

In fairness, Burnes and Drake find themselves in the unenviable position of shouldering responsibility for situations they do not entirely -- or even primarily -- control. Their schools have demographic profiles that here and elsewhere have a well-documented history of sub-par academic performance.

Of course, demographic differences could mean methods that raised scores at Beaufort High School, Hilton Head High and Bluffton High won't be easily replicated at Battery Creek and Whale Branch.

And it should be noted that only Hilton Head High's average of 1,479 surpassed the state average of 1,431. Beaufort (1,419) and Bluffton (1,420) were below the state average, and all three were below the national average of 1,498. Achieving the national average should be our goal.

We need to be searching for long-term, lasting solutions. Until they are found, the district office should expend less energy trumpeting new technology and seeking accolades for unproven programs.