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Published in Print: March 23, 2005, as Georgia Is All Business As It Moves to Improve State’s Showing on SAT

Georgia Is All Business as It Moves to Improve State’s Showing on SAT

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Students aren’t the only ones in Georgia fretting over scores from the recent SAT exams.

More than perhaps any other state, Georgia has linked its reputation as a place to live, send children to school, and do business to the state’s performance on the college-entrance test.

Since Gov. Sonny Perdue launched a statewide effort two years ago to raise those scores, the state has inched upward—from 50th place nationally to 49th. And if all goes well this spring, its efforts will continue to pay off with higher average scores, increased participation, and an enhanced image.

SAT scores “are perceived by the business community to be an important issue,” said Phil Jacobs, the president of operations in Georgia for BellSouth Telecommunications, the chairman of the governing board for the Georgia Department of Economic Development, and a past president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. “They’re concerned that they’re bringing their kids to an environment where they’re going to be disadvantaged educationally.”

Shaw High School freshmen Josh Nichols, left, and Richard Kuhn study Algebra I. The school, which is located in Columbus, Ga., has embraced Gov. Sonny Perdue's push to raise SAT  scores statewide.
Shaw High School freshmen Josh Nichols, left, and Richard Kuhn study Algebra I. The school, which is located in Columbus, Ga., has embraced Gov. Sonny Perdue's push to raise SAT scores statewide.
—Robin Trimarchi for Education Week

Though welcoming the focus on the SAT, which includes classroom test preparation for all students, some Georgia school administrators say that at least one piece of Gov. Perdue’s overall strategy—a sports-like SAT competition between schools—is misguided.

But Charlotte Robinson, the state education department’s Advanced Placement, SAT, and PSAT coordinator, says that the state’s initiative isn’t just about raising scores. It’s about improving overall student achievement.

“The best preparation is just a strong curriculum,” Ms. Robinson said, adding that SAT-preparation courses will give students test-taking strategies and help them boost their scores, “but only if they’ve had an appropriate foundation.”

Eyeing Progress

Calamity, beguile, digress, and idiom—vocabulary words that have a good chance of showing up on the SAT—are listed on the whiteboard in Stephanie Fuerte’s freshman English class, at Shaw High School here in Columbus.

Clayton Henry, who teaches 11th grade English, gives bonus points when students can define a word and use it properly.

And teacher Michael Stephens recently asked students in his English class to think of a cause they would be willing to go to jail for and then write a one- to two-page essay in 20 minutes—conditions that are not too different from those required by the new essay portion of the SAT, which was given for the first time March 12.

“I do a lot of work with root words, suffixes and prefixes,” he added of his lessons. “They’re pleased when they see something on a test they’ve heard in class.”

Strategies like these—integrated throughout the curriculum at this 1,050-student high school and at others in the Muscogee County district—help explain why the district posted a 40-point increase in SAT scores last year, up to a combined mathematics and verbal score of 964 of a possible 1600.

While the district’s average still trailed the statewide average of 987, the leap was much higher than those made in any of the other districts in the state with similar demographics. The national average last year was 1026. (Under the new SAT, the maximum combined score is 2400.)

The 33,000-student Muscogee County system’s efforts also serve as an example of what Gov. Perdue and state schools Superintendent Kathy B. Cox would like to see statewide. They launched the broad effort to raise average scores on the admissions test with great fanfare in 2003, the year the two of them—both Republicans—took office.

Mr. Perdue and Ms. Cox say they want to give students a greater chance of getting into the colleges of their choice, while also improving the state’s standing on a measure that noneducators often use when deciding whether to move their families, or their businesses, to Georgia.

Indeed, improved SAT performance, like the gains in Muscogee County, do not go unnoticed by business officials.

In his office in the upscale area of Atlanta known as Buckhead, Mr. Jacobs recalls a case in which a company was considering locating a telemarketing call center in Georgia, but was troubled by the educational indicators, including SAT scores, in some counties. While the company ultimately moved the business to Georgia, it ruled out certain communities, he said because of the lackluster performances of their schools.

Those indicators matter, in part, because business leaders are thinking about the pool from which they will have to draw future employees. “Jobs in this state that don’t require some kind of postsecondary education are declining,” Mr. Jacobs said.

Fair or Not?

Last year, Georgia’s 3-point increase in its average combined SAT score put the state in 49th place nationwide, ahead of South Carolina. At the same time, participation increased by 2.6 percent to more than 60,000 students, or 73 percent of the 2004 graduating seniors who took the test their junior or senior year—a figure that Ms. Robinson said corporate executives likely don’t consider.

“I don’t ever want to hear that a child has been told, ‘You shouldn’t take the SAT,’ ” Ms. Robinson said during an interview this month at her office in downtown Atlanta. Part of her job also involves working to help districts improve their SAT averages by analyzing data and targeting students’ weak areas.

But even with Gov. Perdue’s boosterism for SAT scores, it’s not uncommon to hear Georgians say that such scores are an inaccurate way to judge a state education system. Ms. Robinson is no exception. “It’s not fair for a state to be ranked on education,” said Ms. Robinson, who is a former high school social studies teacher.

It would be one thing, however, if the SAT were the only measure on which the state had a poor showing. But it’s not, Mr. Jacobs of BellSouth said.

Only 65.4 percent of Georgia seniors graduated from high school last year, according to state data, and 28 percent of the state’s 18- to 24-year-olds enroll in college.

Instead of offering excuses, Ms. Robinson and her two staff members travel around Georgia holding workshops on what can be learned from taking an in-depth look at scores on the Preliminary SAT, and how students can benefit when teachers from the 6th through 12th grades work together in teams.

In addition, the state pays for all sophomores to take the PSAT, and Gov. Perdue, in his budget request for fiscal 2006, is seeking $1 million to give every Georgia high school student—beginning in 9th grade—access to free SAT preparation on the Internet.

Building an awareness of the PSAT and SAT as early as middle school also allows students more opportunities to prepare for the tests and improve their scores.

But you don’t need to tell that to 10th grader Portia Norris of Shaw High in Columbus. “I really need to work on math,” she said recently. “I want to be a doctor, so I really need those high scores.”

Private Partners

The state’s work on raising SAT scores is complemented by business-supported initiatives to encourage students to consider some kind of postsecondary education and to improve Georgia’s standing on the education indicators that are viewed by companies that are considering a move to the state.

GeorgiaGO is a marketing campaign designed to increase high school completion rates and enrollment in college through access to information about college, mentoring, scholarships, and grants to community organizations.

To help explain the effort, Mr. Jacobs recalls the frequently used example of state corrections officials using elementary school student performance data to forecast how many beds they’ll need in the future. “Instead, don’t we want to live in a state where we use 3rd grade reading scores to figure out how many dorm rooms we’re going to need?” the telecommunications executive said.

But some wonder if too much attention is being placed on at least one aspect of SAT scores.

Educators like Shaw High’s principal, James A. Arnold, appreciate the state’s new focus on raising SAT scores and college attendance, but they say one strategy that is not helping is the Governor’s Cup challenge in which high schools compete against each other within regions—just as they would in football or track and field.

The schools that improve the most in their regions win the annual awards, which will be given for the second time later this year.

“I think that’s misguided at best,” Mr. Arnold said. “I don’t think it’s an issue that needs to be a competition between schools. We work on increasing an individual’s score.”

Ms. Robinson has heard similar comments, but said the governor has the “best of intentions.”

Besides, she added, it’s not like the Governor’s Cup is the only attempt to improve scores. “That is just one part of a very complex system,” she said. The SAT preparation complements Georgia’s HOPE Scholarships, which cover the cost of in-state college tuition for students who meet certain grade requirements.

But unless they start preparing early, students won’t qualify for that program. “We’re really talking to kids in 6th grade about big dreams, and big plans,” she said.

Vol. 24, Issue 28, Pages 1,21

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