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Minding the gap: Educators work to address SAT disparities in southwest county schools

Woodlawn High School entices students to attend after school SAT preparation sessions by offering T-shirts, snacks and a chance to go on a “dream college” field trip, Principal Georgina Aye said.

Farther south at Lansdowne High, Principal Ken Miller said a SAT marketing committee plasters the school with posters and brochures featuring colleges and listing the minimum scores needed on the standardized test that colleges use as a factor in deciding whether to admit students.

“We’re working with families that unfortunately are sometimes in a real bind,” Miller said. “Do they see the value in the SAT, when they are working to help support their families, struggling just day to day?

“That’s where the sales part of the SAT has to come in,” Miller said.

Between Lansdowne and Woodlawn at Catonsville High, Principal Matt Ames said that “probably about 10 years ago” they would have had to market the SAT to students — “but it’s not that way anymore.”

“Kids know about it,” Ames said.

The most recent SAT scores from the four public high schools in southwest Baltimore County straddled the state average in the 2016-2017 school year, according to statistics provided by the Baltimore County Public School System. Two schools scored above average, two were below.

And they also illustrated what education equity researchers observe nationwide: Schools with large populations of low-income students and students of color face an uphill battle in preparing their students for the SAT — a test some educators consider an important indicator of college readiness, and that is one factor college admissions officers use when screening applicants.

“There’s achievement gaps — pretty large ones — on the SAT,” said Gail Sunderman, director of the Maryland Equity Project at the University of Maryland College of Education in College Park.

A gap in readiness

At Lansdowne and Woodlawn, where more than half of students are nonwhite, and county statistics show a majority receive free and reduced-price meals, or FARMs, one indicator of an area’s family income levels, students scored below the state and county averages.

The average student in Maryland scored 528 points out of a possible 800 on the reading and writing portion of the SAT, and 518 points on the math section. In Baltimore County those numbers are slightly lower, at 506 on language and 491 on math.

At Lansdowne, where 54 percent of students receive free- or reduced-price lunch and almost 60 percent are students of color, students scored 445 in reading and writing and 432 on the math section.

Woodlawn students averaged lower, at 427 in reading and 409 in math. Nearly 60 percent of the school’s population is on free or reduced lunch, and 3 percent of students at Woodlawn are white, according to Maryland Department of Education statistics.

College Board, which administers the SAT, considers students “college and career ready" if they meet score benchmarks of more than 480 for reading and writing and 530 for math, standards not met for the average student at Lansdowne and Woodlawn.

By contrast, Catonsville High students, on average whiter and wealthier than their neighbors, scored an average of 532 in reading and 522 in math — higher than the state and county averages, and well past the benchmark for college readiness.

The Western School of Technology, a magnet high school in Catonsville, outscored the other three schools— students scored an average of 572 on the reading and writing portion of the test, and 570 on the math.

Causes and solutions

The gaps between southwest area schools mirror differences in SAT scores by race in Maryland.

A College Board report shows that 65 percent of white Maryland students met readiness benchmarks in 2017. Thirty-seven percent of Hispanic and Latino students and 21 percent of black students met that same mark.

Sunderman said achievement gaps stem from differences in resources that take root long before children enter school.

Average 2017 SAT scores for southwestern Baltimore County schools

School EBRW * Math Composite Total student pop White Nonwhite % Minority % FARMS **
SchoolCatonsville High EBRW532 Math522 Composite1054 Total student pop1754 White925 Nonwhite829 % Minority47.3 % FARMS26.3
SchoolLansdowne High EBRW445 Math432 Composite877 Total student pop1338 White558 Nonwhite780 % Minority58.3 % FARMS54.2
SchoolWestern High EBRW572 Math570 Composite1142 Total student pop910 White121 Nonwhite789 % Minority86.7 % FARMS35.8
SchoolWoodlawn High EBRW427 Math409 Composite836 Total student pop1409 White47 Nonwhite1362 % Minority96.7 % FARMS57.4
School EBRW Math Composite Total student pop White Nonwhite % Minority % FARMS
SchoolMaryland average EBRW528 Math518 Composite1046 Total student pop White Nonwhite % Minority % FARMS
SchoolBaltimore County average EBRW506 Math491 Composite997 Total student pop White Nonwhite % Minority % FARMS

* EBRW - SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Score
** FARMS - students who receive free and reduced-price meals

Source: Baltimore County Schools

Once they are older, Sunderman said, “students tend to make equal progress with their more [advantaged] peers. But they are starting lower.”

Sunderman said research shows that the demographic makeup of a school can matter more than one’s family background, in part because school resources can vary, even in the same school district.

“It’s not always just the amount of money,” Sunderman said. “It’s access to better teachers, teachers who may stay longer, who have more experience. It’s access to your peers.”

Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said helping poorer students succeed is “not a simple equation” of moving talented teachers to struggling schools.

“It really is providing teachers with smaller class sizes, providing them with adults to help out, so they can really start leveling that playing field,” Beytin said, adding that those resources are lacking in Baltimore County and nationwide.

“Everyone talks about how important public education is,” Beytin said. “But when push comes to shove, we ask for the money for it, and it’s not there.”

Recognizing achievement gaps on other standardized tests, the State Board of Education recently voted to give schools with large numbers of minority and low-income students lower targets on statewide tests. By 2030, high-performing schools will be expected to have higher percentages of students who pass the statewide tests than low-performing schools.

Though the achievement gap between black and white Lansdowne students appears to be closing, Miller said, he is working to keep the school’s growing Hispanic population from falling behind.

At Lansdowne, English as a Second Language, or ESOL, is a major aspect of improving SAT scores, Miller said, saying teachers have to use visual clues and other alternatives so students still learning English will not lag behind in learning content.

Another challenge at Lansdowne, Miller said, is helping students and parents, especially those that did not attend college, understand how the SAT fits into a student’s future goals — a responsibility he said falls on the shoulders of guidance counselors.

Aye, at Woodlawn, said the school starts teaching students how the SAT fits into their goals starting freshman year — a strategy she said has lead to 94 percent of eligible juniors taking the SAT last spring.

When Woodlawn students get their scores, she said, teachers sit with them and their parents to explain what the scores mean and what skills they should work on to succeed next time.

Average 2016 SAT scores for college-bound seniors from southwestern Baltimore County schools

School Reading Math Writing Composite
SchoolCatonsville Reading481 Math483 Writing477 Composite1441
SchoolLansdowne Reading386 Math380 Writing371 Composite1137
SchoolWoodlawn Reading366 Math353 Writing355 Composite1075
SchoolWestern Tech Reading506 Math520 Writing502 Composite1528

Source: Baltimore County School System

Miller said he measures Lansdowne’s success on the differences between a student’s score on the PSAT, a preliminary assessment test, and their SAT score.

Miller provided statistics showing that this year’s seniors increased their combined scores by nearly 70 points since they took the PSAT in 10th grade.

At Catonsville High, educators are focused on boosting the scores of African-American students and those with special education needs, Ames said.

Teachers, he said, identify students in their classes that need help and “address skill deficits daily in the classroom,” as well as encouraging struggling students to attend SAT preparation classes.

A magnet and outlier

Magnet school Western Tech’s population is unique in that students, 87 percent of whom are students of color, are selected through a competitive countywide application process.

Though the minority population at Western Tech is similar to Woodlawn, it has fewer low-income students.

Western Tech’s principal, Buddy Parker, said racial gaps in his school’s test scores are “not as pronounced” as at other schools.

He attributed the school’s high SAT scores not to entrance requirements, which he said are not strict, but to the school’s investment in every student, regardless of background.

“Once you enter, you’re a Western Tech student, and we’re going to maximize your potential,” Parker said. “Some students may need more support than others, and that’s where we come in.”

Parker said one of the most important ways the school helps students succeed on the test is giving them practice. By the time students take the SAT as juniors, he said, they will have taken versions of the test nine times.

Another strategy he said has worked is an SAT summer institute, which rising seniors can take the summer after they first take the SAT.

The program, which Parker said attracts 50 or more students, helps students analyze their scores to identify skills that need work. After practicing those skills, many students take the SAT again in the fall of their senior year.

“It’s a lot of work,” Parker said. “Work on the part of the student, the teachers and then the parents too.”

Teaching and testing

At every school in the southwest district, educators said they help improve SAT scores by focusing on basic skills such as literacy, math and problem solving.

Principals said their schools have embraced the “Rule of Four,” in which students solve math problems using four strategies: geometric, algebraic, numerical and verbal solutions. That method, Miller said, gives students multiple tools to solve an SAT problem.

The schools have also implemented strategies for reading and writing, often named after school mascots — Lansdowne students use the “Viking Style,” while Woodlawn students annotate using the “Warrior Way.”

Ames, Catonsville’s principal, said the redesigned SAT, which College Board rolled out in March 2016, aligns more closely with skills the school is teaching students already, such as reading comprehension. He praised the decision to get rid of aspects of the test, including obscure words, that students do not use in daily life.

Teaching the SAT by teaching basic skills aligns with the view that the SAT is an indicator that a student has skills needed to succeed in college or a career, some educators say.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County takes SAT scores into account because they are indicators of whether a student will succeed in their freshman year of college, Dale Bittinger, assistant vice provost for admissions at UMBC, said.

The Community College of Baltimore County, which has a Catonsville campus, uses SAT scores to determine whether a student needs to take a placement test, Diana Drake, director of admissions, said.

CCBC admits every student, Drake said, but students who score better than 500 on each section of the SAT are exempt from taking a placement test.

That score, Drake said, is “telling us they are ready for college-level work.”

Sunderman said because of racial and economic disparities, skepticism of the test is growing. To truly help students, she said, test scores are only part of the solution.

“I think what’s going to last them their lifetime is getting a good education,” Sunderman said. “Not getting a good score on the SATs."

Aye, at Woodlawn, said her school focuses not only on getting students ready to take the SAT, but preparing them for what comes after, whether college or a career.

“It’s not enough to get them to it, but to get them through it,” Aye said.

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