Comparing SAT scores

Thank God for ... Maine?

South Carolina traditionally looks for other Southern states to save us from being at the very bottom of the national heap regarding educational performance. This year, however, only Maine and the District of Columbia had lower SAT scores than the Palmetto State.

Unfortunately, even South Carolina's ranking above Maine comes with a caveat. Beginning last year, Maine substituted the SAT for the federally mandated test it had been using to assess the performance of its high schools under the No Child Left Behind Act. As a result, every senior in Maine is required to take the SAT.

Predictably, with all students taking the test, the average is going to fall. That played a significant role in Maine's ranking as "worst in the nation" regarding average SAT scores.

Maine's average was 931, compared with 940 for the District of Columbia and 984 for South Carolina. The national average was 1,017 -- four points lower than last year's.

Mississippi, to which South Carolina often turns for relief, scored an impressive average composite of 1,117. Aha, but there's a catch: Only 4 percent of Mississippi's seniors, presumably all college-bound, took the test. While many others in the state took the alternative ACT test, the low percentage taking the SAT undoubtedly boosted the average score.

Across the nation, 45 percent of the 2.85 million students who graduated in the spring took the test. In South Carolina, more than 60 percent took the test.

Among area schools, SAT results were a mixed bag. Fort Mill High School's average dropped by 34 points compared with last year's. But this year's 1,048 average still was well above the national average and among the highest in the state. And 80 percent of Fort Mill seniors took the test.

Chester High School's 977 average was below the state average but represented an 81-point improvement over last year's. Both Clover High and Northwestern High scored lower this year but remained above the state average.

The College Board, which creates the SATs each year, strongly advises against using the scores to rank states or to try to compare the quality of education in one state to another. Nonetheless, while it often means comparing apples to oranges, the temptation is strong to make assumptions about why some states have high averages while others don't.

South Carolina, until recently, had shown steady improvement in its average score, although it continued to rank at or near the bottom nationally. In fact, the state's improvement in average SAT scores over the past decade is the best in the nation.

Clearly, however, by whatever standard is used, South Carolina has considerable room for improvement in the education it offers its students, especially those in economically disadvantaged parts of the state. SAT scores are only one measure, but they tend to reinforce others that show that improving the state's public schools should be a top priority.