Northern Hillsborough high school students last year continued the district trend toward improved performance on the FCAT, the standardized state test of student reading, writing and math proficiency. Gaither, Chamberlain and Wharton high schools all posted about 10 percent higher FCAT scores compared to 2001-2002. Sickles High maintained its "A" rating, registering a slightly higher score and Gaither garnered its first "A."
At the same time, however, student performance on the SAT has been in decline at the schools and in the district. On the test most commonly used in Florida to gauge readiness for college work, none of the schools meet the national SAT average and all but Gaither lag behind district and state results.
While better FCAT results are good news for area administrators and teachers under pressure to show that schools are improving, worsening SAT results do not bode well for college-bound students who want to attend more selective universities. They also raise questions about FCAT gains.
School administrators say they are puzzled by the diverging trends. "We first noticed the SAT drop a couple years ago," said Sam Whitten, supervisor of assessment for Hillsborough district schools. "We don't know why it's happening."
Whitten says district officials were concerned more students were taking the SAT who weren't prepared. "We know our students are getting better at taking the FCAT," he said. "They've gotten used to the test and teachers know better what's being tested."
District officials have encouraged schools to offer more SAT test preparation, Whitten says, but the courses are voluntary. "We may have been having kids self-directing away from them," he said.
Gaither High offers SAT prep courses in math and reading, according to guidance department head Susanne Powell. Gaither has also written goals into the school plan to improve SAT results. Though up slightly last year, SAT results are down over the three-year period though 2002 (2003 results will be published in the fall). Powell says she can't point to any reason results rose or why they are down overall.
Like Whitten she believes FCAT results have improved because the test is more familiar now. She also points to another reason suggested by Whitten: "Teachers are teaching to the test."
Some see good in that. "With the coming of FCAT testing, the high-level curriculum went to skills necessary to succeed on the test," said Elsa Tuggle, assistant principal of curriculum at Sickles. "As kids get better on FCAT, their SAT scores will begin to improve."
That possibility is also raised by Barbara Ramsey, the program coordinator for Chamberlain High School's advanced placement program. "There might be a delay factor," she said, explaining that high school students take FCAT in 10th grade, but may not take the SAT until the beginning of 12th grade.
Ramsey says another factor could soon work in the favor of local students. Beginning in 2005, Ramsey says the SAT will change. "They are dropping analogies and adding algebra II, a critical reading section and an essay," she said. Adding a writing section, Ramsey says, may especially help Florida students score better because they've had years of preparation for state writing tests.
Lost in the speculation about testing is the difficult question of whether SAT results show students are less prepared for college. The most recent available state figures show little change in the readiness of college-bound students in Hillsborough County between 1998-2001. And while FCAT results are improving, the part of the FCAT that compares local and state students to national results shows no change overall. The exceptions are a leap in math scores for Chamberlain students and a dip in reading scores at Wharton.
Better test preparation aside, Powell and Whitten both advise college-bound students to take more advanced courses. "UF (the University of Florida) heavily weights AP courses," Powell said.
But if more rigorous course work is the best use of the students' time, parents and school officials might take heed of another Powell statement. "If students are prepping for FCAT, they have less time to learn other things," she said.