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In Howard, schools see big gains in SAT prep

Like their counterparts in other racially diverse school systems, Howard County educators faced a troubling statistic: sharp disparities between the average SAT scores of Hispanic and African-American students and their white and Asian classmates.

The numbers spurred the school system to create a pilot course aimed at closing the performance gap. And it seems to have worked.

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The black and Hispanic teen-agers who took the preparatory course in the spring improved their scores on the SAT, a two-part college-entrance exam that measures math and verbal skills, by an average of 150 points.

"We were thrilled," said Nancy Holly, who taught math sections of the class. "Most kids really improved. It was just amazing."

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As a result, the school system has revamped its SAT preparatory curriculum into a uniform, semester-long elective course based on the pilot class, which will be phased-in at county high schools for all students when classes resume later this month.

And in the fall, the district will join at least five others in offering the preliminary SAT - the PSAT - to students for free. Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Washington counties also foot the bill for the test, as does Baltimore City.

It's all part of a multifaceted saturation program the county has developed to elicit better SAT performances and increased participation, particularly from African-American and Hispanic students, who traditionally lag behind.

"We'd like to get to the point where all of our kids are taking the SAT, as high a percentage as we can get because it opens doors for them," said Clarissa Evans, Howard's director of secondary curricular programs.

About half of the county's 10 eligible high schools have now reached the school-system goal of having at least 80 percent of qualified students take the SAT.

At Centennial High School in Ellicott City, 97 percent of students took the exam last year. But at Columbia's Long Reach and Oakland Mills high schools, about 70 percent of students in each school participated. That fact helped Evans decide to choose teen-agers from those schools when putting together the pilot course.

About 40 students participated in the eight-week, 16-session test class, taught by Howard teachers. And Kelli Davenport, soon to be a senior at Long Reach, couldn't be happier that she was among them.

Davenport took a practice version of the SAT before taking the prep course and scored 1100 points out of a possible 1600 - 16 points above the county's average - but she was hoping for 1200.

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She just about got it. When she took the actual test in May after the classes, she scored 1190. "I thought I might improve, but I didn't think I'd go up 90 points," she said. "My parents were really proud of me."

Standardized approach

Before the course, the average combined score of students who participated in the pilot class was about 750, Evans said, but after, the average jumped to about 900.

"Any kid who takes this course and takes it seriously is going to have their scores go up," said Holly, who has seen similar results with students who she has tutored privately. The difference in the Howard course, she said, is that it's free - if taken as a semester-long elective - and uniform.

"Before this, kids learned whatever it was individual teachers knew about the SAT," Holly said. Now, there are guidelines and standards to follow.

Many school systems offer some sort of SAT training, though few make the PSAT available to all 10th- and 11th-graders at the Department of Education's expense, as Howard will for about 7,000 students next school year.

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"Offering it to everyone demystifies the test," said John F. Mallonee, an instructional specialist with Montgomery County's school system.

"A lot of kids we've found were not taking the test because they were afraid of it," Mallonee said, adding that the free practice version helps to draw kids in and spur them to take prep classes and eventually the actual SAT.

"It takes away the idea that some kids can go to college and some can't," said Michael Marsh, a solutions manager at the College Board, the New York-based nonprofit group that administers the test.

More data

Marsh said offering the PSAT to a wider range of teen-agers not only gives the students an idea of their capabilities, but it also provides school officials a better picture of which instructional areas need enhancement.

That's music to Robert Glascock's ears. As assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum and instruction in Howard, Glascock spends much of his time trying to better student performance throughout the county, and he's a firm believer in data-driven techniques.

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"Our support services are based upon student data," Glascock said, excited to have more information on the way.

Other initiatives in the works between the county and the College Board, which have partnered informally to offer the PSAT, include lessons on how the school system can better provide college-preparatory information to parents and the community, and a series of workshops on advanced placement education set to be offered in the fall for teachers and administrators.

Marsh said the PSAT testing will likely point to students who are good candidates for advanced placement classes, as well, but have somehow slipped through the diagnostic cracks.

Roy Myles knew early on that his 16-year-old daughter, Veronique Myles, soon to be senior at Long Reach High School, was above average. She skipped a grade at the start of her schooling and could have skipped another if her parents hadn't worried about the social effect.

But Veronique's SAT scores didn't match her grades. So she too tried out the pilot prep course.

"Her score went from like an 800 to over 1000," Roy Myles said, adding that his daughter's calculator broke the day of the test or she likely would have scored even higher.

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"For me as a parent, I was very happy," Myles said. "The SAT scores really determine what college you're going to and scholarships and the whole nine yards."

'It just helps'

Evans said prep courses are available at many county schools, but not at all of them and not with any countywide consistency, which is the school system's goal. Her department is working out the kinks and trying to determine by fall how to implement the programs during the school day.

They are also exploring a low-cost after-school option.

"I would definitely recommend it because it just helps," Davenport said.

"When I took the SATs, I felt a lot more confident, a lot more ready, and it just didn't seem as difficult."


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