NEWPORT NEWS — A comparison of the average SAT scores at local area high schools show wide variations throughout the region, with suburban schools tending to outpace more urban ones.
Jamestown High School, in James City County, had the highest average SAT score for public high schools on the Peninsula for at least three years in a row, according to Virginia Department of Education numbers.
Six high schools in the Daily Press' coverage area were among the top 100 public high schools in Virginia ranked by their average SAT scores for 2015 graduates. The list, created by the Daily Press with scores from 323 schools statewide, was dominated by schools in Northern Virginia, in the wealthy suburbs near Washington, D.C.
Jamestown High School came in 29th on that list, with an average SAT score of 1,640 out of a possible 2,400 points. Three of York County's four main high schools — Tabb, Grafton and York — were also in the top 75 in the state, as were Poquoson High School and Lafayette High School, in James City.
On the other hand, several high schools in Newport News and Hampton — most glaringly Heritage High School and Phoebus High School — significantly lagged the average SAT scores of the region, state and nation.
Heritage's average SAT score was 312th highest out of 323 schools in Virginia, while Phoebus was 306th on that list. While Heritage's average score, at 1,202, was up eight points from a year ago, Phoebus' average, at 1,243, fell by 49 points.
An Achievable Dream Middle and High School, in Newport News, had the lowest average SAT score in the area, though that's skewed because it's a very small school catering heavily to disadvantaged students.
The average scores at all four public high schools in Hampton were below the state averages in all three areas of the SAT — critical reading, math and writing. Three of the city's four high schools saw lower scores than last year, with Hampton High School up a modest three points.
The disparity between jurisdictions doesn't come as a surprise to educators.
"I tell reporters that you can write the story before the numbers come out," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a Massachusetts-based group that pushes colleges to make SAT scores optional. "The wealthier communities will have the highest scores, and the poorer communities will have the lower scores. … And with each increase in the income band, the average score goes up."
The average SAT scores in Gloucester, Mathews and Isle of Wight counties were better than the national average, though not as good as the statewide numbers. Smithfield High School, for its part, jumped five places on the local list over the past two years — to eighth place from 13th.
The districts had some disparities within the school systems.
Four of Newport News' six high schools made gains on the SAT this year. And though Menchville High School was down, its score was still the highest in the city and above the national average. Kecoughtan High School in Hampton tied the national average in reading and scored better than Hampton's other schools, even as its score fell slightly.
The average SAT score at Newport News' Warwick High School exactly matched the national average of 1,462. Moreover, Warwick — which jumped three spots on the local list with a 68-point gain since 2013 — also came in at the exact midpoint on both the state and local lists.
The SAT, or the Scholastic Aptitude Test, is used by many colleges and universities for admissions and is often seen as a yardstick for how students might fare at the university level. The College Board recently provided the state's scores to the Virginia Department of Education.
School administrators in Hampton and Newport News did not shy away from acknowledging that their school systems must make strides.
"Certainly we recognize that we have work to do," said Donna Woods, executive director of school leadership for Hampton City Schools. "As a district we are concerned about our schools — all our schools — and are working diligently to ensure that all of our students are college and career ready."
The district is "tiering some interventions of support to the schools based on their current level of performance," Woods said. For example, she said, the school system will increase the use of timed writing tests, so that students learn to write against a clock.
Hampton high schools are also offering SAT preparation classes, and encouraging students to take more demanding courses. It's been shown, Woods said, that students who take challenging classes — such as four years of math — "perform at a higher level" on standardized tests.
Likewise, Brian Nichols, the chief academic officer for Newport News Public Schools, said the district is also pushing to make gains.
"We always want to be very competitive," he said. "We have a lot of great things that we do, and any time we see we are not competitive, it's something that we are looking at and working on. We have a lot of smart people that are working at that at both the district and school level."
Heritage High School, Nichols said, "has really made some great gains on the SOL (Standards of Learning) side of things … gains in all four subjects," on those separate tests. Still, he said, Heritage "has been identified as a place where we want to see rapid improvement this school year."
Nichols said the district is looking at where gains were made — such as Warwick's 23-point increase in its critical reading score — "to see what they specifically did to get that kind of increase." The aim, he said, is to replicate those gains elsewhere.
Race, income differences
According to Virginia Education Department numbers, the average SAT score at the state's public schools was 1,523, 61 points above the national average of 1,462. Moreover, the agency said, Virginia's modest increases in recent years buck national declines.
When broken down by race, the scores show a significant disparity. Asian students scored the highest, with an average score in Virginia of 1,675. White students averaged 1,588, Hispanic students 1,454 and black students 1,300, the numbers show.
The College Board pinpoints a "college readiness benchmark" score of 1,550. That number, the board said, indicates a "65 percent likelihood" of achieving grades of B-minus or better in the first year of college.
In Virginia, 45 percent of students met that mark. That included 64 percent of Asians, 55 percent of whites and 35 percent of Hispanics, but only 16 percent of black test-takers.
"These chronic and persistent achievement gaps mean we must all redouble our efforts to ensure that we are preparing all of our students to succeed, especially those who most need a lift up through education," Virginia Education Secretary Anne Holton said last week.
Some see opportunity gaps early in life as explaining some of those differences. Schaeffer, for one, said that "kids who grow up in the more affluent families have more accumulated opportunity, and it actually begins before they are born."
Wealthier parents are more apt to read to their children and provide them a stimulating environment rather than "plunking them down in front of a TV after working two jobs," he said. Add to that access to better libraries in wealthier areas and early childhood education differences, he said, "and the poor kids are behind the starting line."
High schools "can close that gap to some extent, but there's only so much that can be done," Schaeffer said.
A fair measuring stick?
The SAT is widely used by colleges because it's one of the only standardized methods of comparing students attending a huge spectrum of high schools across the country. But the test is not without its critics, with some colleges moving away from requiring applicants to take the SAT, instead making it optional.
Schaeffer, for his part, asserted that it might make sense for colleges to use the SAT as one of many factors to evaluate students — but not as the main one. While the test measures "a certain kind of academic skill," he said, taken out of context it's a "very weak measure" of college success.
Better measures of a student's determination to succeed, he said, are such things as class rank and grade point averages.
"A much stronger predictor of who is likely to succeed are the grades, the classroom performance, which also shows creativity and the ability to work with others," he said. "That's a much better predictor of success in college, careers and in life."
"The colleges know that the best predictor of all is if the students avail themselves of the tough courses," Schaeffer said.
Moreover, he added, a high school's average SAT score is not necessarily the best measure of its quality. Schools should also be assessed, he said, by their graduation rates, the percentage of students going to college and graduating, and student satisfaction rates, among other things.
And while the average SAT score at a particular high school might be below average, Schaeffer said, that school can often boast courses — such as honors and advanced placement classes — that can still make it a good place to attend.
Dujardin can be reached by phone at 757-247-4749.