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An alliance to improve SAT scores

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore County public schools and the College Board are expected to enter into an alliance today - the first effort of its kind in Maryland - to help students better prepare for college and the often rigorous admissions process.

Under the agreement, scheduled to be signed this morning, all sophomores at the county's public high schools would take the PSAT, a preliminary version of the standardized college test, next month.

The pact also includes provisions for test analysis, workshops for students, teachers, parents and counselors and expanded Advanced Placement course offerings.

The effort is designed to nudge students along as they look toward graduation and the possibility of college, school officials said.

"For those who might have felt college is impossible, we want them to understand that it is indeed possible," said William U. Harris, executive director of the College Board's Middle States Regional Office.

The alliance between the board, a national nonprofit association that helps students prepare academically for college, comes two weeks after SAT scores were released for the county's Class of 2000. The results showed an average 3-point drop in math scores, to 501, and an eight-point decline in verbal scores, to 496.

Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston has said he wants to bring SAT and Advance Placement scores above the national average. The national average math score on the college entrance exam was 514; the average verbal score was 505.

SAT preparation efforts vary from school to school in the county. Participation rates and scores also cover a broad range at the county's 24 high schools. Twenty percent of seniors at Chesapeake took the test last spring, compared to 98 percent at Pikesville. Combined verbal and math scores ranged from 793 at Randallstown to 1128 at Dulaney.

Whether the alliance will boost scores and improve student preparedness remains a question. This is only the second year the College Board has provided services such as those being offered in Baltimore County. In the Mid-Atlantic region, two school districts are now receiving those services - the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Rochester, N.Y.

Harris said it may take a while to see improvements.

"We look for quick fixes and quick results," he said. "But educational change takes time, and we have to give it that kind of time."

The agreement would include some free workshops during the first year. Because so many students are taking the PSAT, the College Board also is offering to discount the cost by 15 percent, College Board officials said.

The school system will pay $80,000 to test all sophomores Oct. 17, said Ronald S. Thomas, assistant to the superintendent for educational accountability.

School officials did not have a detailed breakdown of alliance costs for the current year. Thomas said he is developing estimates for the 2001-2002 budget.

The school system plans to use grant money from a program that encourages students to pursue college degrees to pay for some workshops. Schools also may be asked to pay for things such as teacher development programs this year, Thomas said.

The College Board offerings won't supplant workshops and programs now being offered, Thomas said. Instead, they will allow schools to build on current efforts and send a strong message to students trying to figure out their futures.

A middle-school component will provide workshops for students and parents and start them thinking early about the possibility of college, Thomas said.

"These are long-term initiatives and really impact the kinds of knowledge and skills kids need to know, whether they go to college or not," Thomas said.

The 10th-grade PSAT testing would give students a chance to practice the examination.

Results will show sophomores their strengths and weaknesses, according to a letter sent home to students telling them about the test.

PSAT analyses would be provided to schools showing the questions students generally answered correctly - and incorrectly.

The College Board also would hold workshops to train school administrators how to read the tests, Harris said.

That extra information can only help the school district, said school board President Donald L. Arnold.

"The key is we are providing tools people will be able to utilize" to do well, he said.

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