CLEARWATER — After years of struggling to close the achievement gap between black and white students, and as Pinellas County school officials nurture new efforts to assure black students will be academically successful, the newest round of SAT scores show signs of improvement.
Pinellas County students earned their highest scores in five years on the 2013 SAT, according to College Board reports released last week. The county’s black and Hispanic students posting the biggest learning gains on the college admissions test.
“There’s still work to do, but seeing any increase is a good sign that students are listening and working hard,” said Lori Matway, the school district’s associate superintendent of student and community support services.
“This is a good starting point, and we’re going to take this even farther.”
Black high school students in Pinellas County increased their average scores on the college admissions test by 12 points in critical reading and nine points in both mathematics and writing — all 800-point tests. More Hispanic students also took the test this year, increasing the number of test-takers by 5.9 percent and average scores on the math portion by five points. Statewide, scores and participation rates for the two groups remained relatively flat.
The reports are “encouraging,” especially with Pinellas County’s new efforts to close its growing achievement gap among black and white students, said Superintendent Michael Grego. The SAT scores also show improvement across nationalities. Pinellas students’ average composite score on the test was the highest in five years at 1,517 out of 2,400. The state average was 1,457.
“It’s hard to get lucky on SAT scores,” Grego said. “Our principals and our schools have begun offering more SAT preparation programs, we’re making sure our minority students have access to these programs, and we’re seeing that our students are really working hard and thinking about their futures.”
The school district is paying closer attention to black students’ performance this school year through its “Bridging the Gap” program. The program has a big focus on assigning mentors to black high school freshmen who will follow them throughout their academic careers to help the students stay on track with graduation requirements, as well as plan for their futures. Thus far, a majority of the targeted students have been assigned both adult mentors from the community and high school senior mentosr to help them during the school day, Matway said. Assigning peer mentors encourages not only the freshmen but also their senior role models to excel academically, she said.
Students typically take the SAT as high school juniors or seniors, but the school district is now encouraging students as young as seventh grade to take the test and enroll in prep courses taught in after-school programs and at St. Petersburg College campuses, Grego said. Getting kids thinking about the test earlier will help increase participation and also encourage students to look for college scholarships and other ways to further their education, especially if they had never thought of college as an option, Grego said.
This year, the school district has also introduced a slew of new online study resources, opened more schools up after hours for tutoring and launched the “Pathways to Success” program, which allows high school students and their parents to track their academic progress online.
Students showed the most improvement districtwide on the reading test, with scores increasing five points from last year, to 513 out of 800. Math and writing scores increased by two points each to 513 and 491, respectively. Statewide, few school districts were able to emulate Pinellas’ success, with average scores dropping in all subjects.
However, there is still more work to be done to increase the number of test-takers in Pinellas County.
In Pinellas, 3,428 students took the SAT during the 2012-2013 school year, compared to 3,624 in 2012 and 3,821 in 2011. Only 334 of those were black and 307 Hispanic, while more than 2,300 were white. The average composite score for black students in the county was 1,301, and the average for Hispanic students was 1,473. White students’ average composite score was 1,548.
School officials say the district needs to continue its efforts to encourage more academic success among minority students.
“Instead of looking at disparities among our students, we need to work on building up their confidence and giving them the tools to take ownership of their futures,” said School Board member Rene Flowers. “We need to help them see everything they’re capable of, because our communities are really missing out on an incredible amount of human capital when our students just give up.”