SAT scores show need for greater focus on math and science

The latest scores on the SAT college entrance exam could bolster Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan’s argument that Connecticut’s public high schools need more emphasis on math and science.

The state’s average SAT reading score for public school students was seven points above the national average for public students and the writing score 22 points higher, but the math score was a point lower, according to results released Monday.

“What’s more alarming than anything is that we’re not, as a state, higher than the national average” in math, McQuillan said.

“I view this with a sense of urgency,” he said.

The latest results showed modest improvement over the past year for college-bound seniors from the state’s public high schools, but the overall long-term trends remained much the same:

  • Nearly three out of four public school seniors took the SAT, the fourth highest participation rate in the nation behind only Maine, Massachusetts and New York.
  • Connecticut public school graduates scored 505 in reading, 510 in math and 510 in writing. The reading and math scores are the same as they were four years ago, and the writing score is six points higher. The writing test was first given in 2006. The maximum score in each subject is 800.
  • The state’s overall average scores – including independent and religious schools – were 509 in reading, 514 in math and 513 in writing.  That compares to nationwide scores of 501 in reading, 516 in math and 492 in writing.
  • Despite modest gains since last year, black and Hispanic graduates continued to lag far behind Asian and white students.
  • On average, boys from public schools outscored girls by seven points in reading but by 35 points in math while girls had a 13 point edge on the writing test.

McQuillan has pushed for more rigorous high school requirements, including a new state law passed earlier this year that will expand graduation requirements by 2018. That includes requiring additional credits and graduation exams in several subjects, including mathematics.

An analysis of the SAT scores shows “a very clear line between those [test-takers] who are taking two years of math and those taking three or four,” McQuillan said. “Those students who take a more robust set of requirements typically score much better. Part of the challenge is to raise the expectations and standards, starting with middle-schoolers.”

College Board officials warn against comparisons among states because of differing demographics and participation rates. High participation rates usually result in lower average scores.

However, McQuillan said that several states with participation rates as strong as Connecticut’s are also scoring well above Connecticut. In comparison to Connecticut’s 510 average math score, Massachusetts had an average score of 524, New Jersey 519 and New Hampshire 519.

Connecticut traditionally has had one of the nation’s highest participation rates on the SAT. Several school districts, including those in some of the state’s largest cities, have taken steps to bolster participation and encourage more students to go to college.

At New London High School, for example, officials have sharply increased the number of students taking the SAT by asking all seniors to sign up.

“We kind of didn’t give them a choice,” said Erin McGuire, director of guidance.

The school district also began offering after-school tutoring classes for the SAT two years ago, she said. In addition, the district runs a college readiness program known as AVID, which includes efforts to encourage middle school students to think about college and take more demanding courses, she said.

In Hartford, public schools have undergone a sweeping reform effort based on college preparation, said Christina Kishimoto, assistant superintendent for secondary schools.

That includes an expansion two years ago of the number of required credits for graduation, including a fourth credit in mathematics, she said. “There’s no such thing as a basic course anymore. Every child is taking a college readiness curriculum.”

In addition, she said the district is considering requiring all sophomores to take the Preliminary SAT, a practice test for the SAT.

Nationwide, nearly 1.6 million students from the Class of 2010 took the SAT, the largest number ever.

Students who completed a core curriculum – four or more years of English, three or more years of mathematics, three or more years of natural science, and three or more years of social science and history – scored, on average, 151 points higher on the SAT than those who did not, the College Board said.

“This report confirms that there are no tricks and there are no shortcuts to college readiness,” College Board President Gaston Caperton said in a press release. “Students who take more rigorous courses in high school are more prepared to succeed in college and beyond.”

Improving academic performance also will require a change in attitude toward subjects such as math and science, officials of a statewide nonprofit group said recently.

The Connecticut Academy for Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology announced a campaign to help students understand the significance of math and science in their lives and recognize that learning those subjects requires hard work.

The campaign, which begins next month, will focus on student motivation, an issue that has had too little attention, said Terri Clark, the academy’s executive vice president.

“Our concern is with all the [school] reform, our students do not seem to be doing better,” she said. “Students are not engaged to the degree they should be, and they aren’t taking personal responsibility for learning.”