Henrico trails state averages in SATs, ACTs

Henrico County high school seniors scored above the federal average but below the state average during the 2011-12 school year on the two most prominent college admissions tests, according to results released recently.

Henrico students averaged a composite score of 21.9 out of a possible 36 on the four-part ACT (compared with a state average score of 22.4) and 1501 on the SAT (compared with the state average of 1517).

While expressing their disappointment with the results, school officials offered School Board members several explanations and detailed efforts to improve both sets of scores this year and in the future.

"Certainly we are not happy with the performances, and we know that we have some work to do," Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Eric Jones told the board during its Oct. 11 work session.

Jones suggested, though, that since the scores reflect only the final tests given during the school year – and not earlier ones – they may not present a completely accurate representation of student knowledge. Some students, for example, may only be focused on one particular section of a test, if they have already attained high scores in other sections during earlier testing.

But, he conceded, the same would hold true for all students whose scores are reflected in the latest numbers statewide and nationally.

To remedy the disappointing scores, high school principals have initiated a variety of efforts.

Godwin Principal Elizabeth Armbruster told the board that her school has implemented lunch study "boot camps" for students taking the SAT, while math teachers have incorporated SAT-style questions into lessons during the two weeks prior to the test. The school also has marketed SAT resources and events to students and parents more strongly than in the past, she said.

At Varina High, teachers have provided more timed writing exercises for students, Principal Tracie Omohundro said. (Jones had suggested that the lack of such exercises district-wide could have contributed to lower scores on the writing portion of the SAT, which is timed.)

Varina also is encouraging juniors to take the SAT to become familiar with the test, Omohundro said, and the school became a testing site, which she said may have helped relieve stress for students who previously had to take the test at unfamiliar schools.

At Hermitage, students have been exposed to an SAT word and question of the day on the school's TV network, Principal Omega Wilson said. Teachers also offer bonus credit in some classes for students who included that information in some way during class participation.

Several Hermitage teachers also have provided before- and after-school tutoring in English and math, and the school offered a Princeton Review course for students, Wilson said.

Jones suggested that the district needed to focus more on increasing daily academic rigor to develop students who could think analytically, understand broad concepts and solve problems – not just learn how to take standardized tests.

"In many ways, I think we've fallen victim to an SOL culture of doing well on a minimal-level competency multiple-choice test," Jones said.

Though SAT math scores did improve from the previous year, the school system is forming a math advisory board, composed of parents, teachers, administrators, university officials and others, to help review current lessons and recommend possible changes, he said.

School administrators are encouraging students to take the ACT, Jones said, which officials believe is a better evaluation of student knowledge than the SAT. The ACT is now accepted by all Virginia colleges, he said.

Jones suggested that restoring funding to allow all ninth- and tenth-graders to take the PSAT could help boost SAT and ACT scores (by providing students with exposure in advance) and that adding funding for prep courses for students – or training sessions for teachers – also would be helpful.

School Board members asked Jones to return next month with a "wish-list" of several items that they might consider adding to the 2012-13 fiscal year budget.

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