POTTSTOWN PA – April usually brings spring flowers, warmer temperatures, and the anticipation of an end to school in only three months. At Pottsgrove High School as elsewhere, though, April also brings a touch of anxiety for some members of the junior class, as they feverishly prepare for their first opportunity to take college entrance exams.
There’s likely anxiety, too, among Pottsgrove administrators and elected officials. That’s because, compared to most of their public school neighbors, Pottsgrove students’ average scores on those exams have largely been disappointing.
Juniors are encouraged every spring to take The SAT (formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test), and The ACT (formerly known as American College Testing) exams if they hope to attend post-secondary colleges or universities after graduating high school. Experts say getting experience in their junior year gives them confidence before taking the tests “for real” in the following October.
The spring round of ACT tests, slightly more popular nationwide than the SAT, will be held April 12 but registration for them has already closed. Similarly, the first spring SAT was held earlier this month, but another round is scheduled for May 3 (2014). The registration deadline for that exam is only eight days away, on April 4.
There’s a lot to study for
There’s a lot riding on the results of these exams. They matter to the students, of course, whose ability to attend the college they desire hinges in part on how well they score. They matter to parents, who not only want the best for their families but who also know that high SAT and ACT scores can be accompanied by scholarships and financial assistance offers.
They matter to school districts because taxpayers and parents insist upon proof that their students are at least keeping up with, if not exceeding, the scores of those at surrounding schools. Test results affect in part the public’s willingness to pay higher property taxes for “good results.” They play a role, too, in determining whether a business will locate in one municipality or another based on what a CEO perceives is the intelligence of its workforce.
They even figure into student job-hunting years after the exams have been forgotten. A Wall Street Journal article published Tuesday (March 25) reported that “plenty of employers still care about a job candidate’s SAT score.” Several consulting firms, it said, “ask new college recruits for their scores, while other companies request them even for senior sales and management hires, eliciting scores from job candidates in their 40s and 50s.”
It all adds up to “SAT pressure.”
Pottsgrove administrators and the district Board of School Directors have likened achieving student success on standardized testing in almost any form as a sort of Holy Grail quest. Yet results of SAT average scores released last month by the Pennsylvania Department of Education show that, when stacked up against the high schools surrounding it – Boyertown to the north, Spring-Ford to the east, and Owen J. Roberts and Pottstown at the south – Pottsgrove High generally falls behind three of four.
Moreover, the accumulation of the state’s reports over a nine-year period between 2006 and 2013 seems to indicate (in the graph at top) an inability to stabilize, much less make increases in, average SAT scores from year to year across all three test components: Math, Verbal, and Writing.
The highest average scores attained by students at all five schools are on the SAT math component. According to results reported by the state between 2006 and 2013, and shown on the graph above, Spring-Ford has been the subject’s leader since 2009. It is followed by Owen J. Roberts, Boyertown, Pottsgrove, and Pottstown.
Pottsgrove is ready to place a substantial financial bet on significantly improving students’ knowledge of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in the near future. A large chunk of the more than $30 million it might spend on proposed high school renovations during the next three years is for new, enhanced or expanded classrooms, laboratories and programs to advance STEM education.
A call for contractor bids for the high school construction work went out earlier this month. Bids themselves are due April 17, and a vote for their potential acceptance by the school board is scheduled for later that month.
Pottsgrove Director of Education and Assessment Dr. Barbara Burke-Stevenson acknowledges new facilities are only one tool in plans to develop smarter math and science students. They require concerted effort, too. “Our teachers are going to be working very hard to make our kids college and career-ready,” she told the board’s Curriculum, Technology And Student Affairs Committee in February, “and we expect students and their families will do the same.”
Last year, Pottsgrove also invested in upgraded math textbooks, supplemental online materials, and course ware for all grade levels. Its choice of curriculum has been heavily criticized by some parents in social media forums, but during recent “Math Nights” at its schools the administration has tried to give parents an inside look at how their students’ math skills, and scores, should improve.
On the SAT verbal component – which tests vocabulary, critical reading and written comprehension skills – the graph of state-reported results above shows that Pottsgrove and Boyertown have jockeyed for years for the average-score middle ground. Boyertown’s averages have bumped up-and-down over a narrow seven-point range between 2006 and 2013; Pottsgrove’s have done the same, in an only 10-point range.
The clear subject leader during the nine-year period is Owen J. Roberts, where the verbal average trend line has kept rising since 2008. Spring-Ford places second; Pottstown, fifth.
Burke-Stevenson and Pottsgrove principals claim classes across all grade levels now put a greater emphasis on writing and reading comprehension. Additionally, lessons in one class – social studies, for instance – might find their way into a separate reading skills class because of increased collaboration among teachers.
That said, it is the SAT writing component with which most area students have the greatest difficulty. The state shows above that overall average test scores for writing are the lowest at each school among the three portions, and that collectively Pottsgrove students fall behind the bulk of their neighbors.
In the writing component, Owen J. Roberts’ average results have continued to reach the top, followed by Spring-Ford and Boyertown.
Some high school teachers privately suggest that Pottsgrove’s demographics play a role in its poor SAT writing performance. Family wealth and resources, or a lack of them, and cultural aspects too, have affected its score averages, they claim. The demographics are unlikely to change; in fact, Pottsgrove’s student population has become more diverse since 2006 and probably will continue that way for years to come. The district hasn’t yet found the solution, they suggest.
That’s not what Superintendent Shellie Feola thinks. As Pottsgrove recently completed its comprehensive planning goals for the next four years, Feola said she is looking to create a district system that places a greater emphasis on consistently teaching to state standards, making instruction more effective, and identifying and helping students at risk. Emphasizing “greater rigor” in what’s taught, and how, will get the basics across, she believes.
In The Post series, “The ACT-SAT Scramble”:
Photos from Google Images; charts created by The Post using state data