Achievement gap appears in SAT scores

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By Anna Harris (Image/Ashleigh Carter)

More of last year’s public high school seniors took the Scholastic Aptitude Test than in recent memory, but educators remain concerned about the achievement gap between white students and their minority peers.

About 62 percent of the 702 seniors enrolled in the 2012-13 school year participated in the SATs during their academic career, which is the most in the past 10 years, according to education officials. But the data shows minority and lower-income students lagging behind their white and higher-income peers.

“[The] gap in achievement across subgroups is a concern, which demands continued attention,” said Margaret Walsh, who served as acting superintendent when the data went public in September.

White students led scores in the reading, math and writing portions, with black, Hispanic and Asian students performing — in a few cases — significantly worse. For example, black students scored, on average, 432 on the reading portion compared to 567 among their white peers. Hispanics averaged 452 and Asian students 507.

Though concerning, the discrepancy could be caused by increasingly more students taking the college-placement exams. While that figure has remained relatively steady the past three years, just 362 students took the SATs in 2004 compared to 437 this past school year.

“Kids are taking it now who 30 years ago would never have taken it,” said Suzanne Maxey, principal of T.C. Williams. “Even if they’re not doing as well, they’re getting the opportunity to take it and go on to college.”

About 72 percent of the city’s minority students took the SATs last school year. That’s compared to just 40 percent statewide and 46 percent nationally, according to officials.

“When you look at the diversity in the testing in the population, it does reflect the diversity in the high schools,” said Clinton Page, executive director of accountability with Alexandria City Public Schools. “It’s not just one subset. It’s a wide swath of the student body.”

About 22 percent of SAT test-takers last school year listed English as a second language. And that could be another reason for the achievement gap, said Maxey. For example, ESL students are handicapped because of the language barrier inherent in an exam written for an English-speaking audience.

And a college test prep class only helps so much, Maxey said. Students’ life experiences also affect how well they do on either the SAT or ACT.

“You learn things that are on the SAT and ACT in your daily environment,” Maxey said. “There are some things you just pick up. Some kids just don’t pick that up as part of their world. That hurts them on the SAT. They don’t have enough words in their daily life, and the school has a hard time teaching them that.”

According to the district’s data, 33 percent of test-takers came from families making less than $30,000 a year. The individuals from this lower-income group suffer a disadvantage because they have limited opportunities, officials said.

Students coming from a lower-income family also have less access to supplementary test preparation courses, which often are costly. Conversely, those from higher-income households benefit from resources unavailable to less fortunate students.

But family-income levels are not the be-all and end-all. There are students who struggle with test-taking in general, Maxey said. Or maybe the increasingly more time-consuming SAT and ACT tests end up hurting students’ performance.

Despite the achievement gap, higher participation rates mean more and more public school students are pursuing academics after graduation.

“There’s an atmosphere in this school now that excellence isn’t just for the top kids,” says Maxey. “[What] we’re more proud of now is that we have more kids going to college and more kids who are qualifying for college. And I think that’s more important.”