Tuesday evening the Flagler County school district celebrated itself with its annual State of Education. Superintendent Jacob Oliva touted Flagler’s ranking of 12 out of 67 counties, based on state standardized test results. He spoke glowingly of the ongoing plan to have every one of the district’s 13,000 students semi-own his or her own laptop or tablet. This year fifth and sixth graders are getting their own, making Flagler the first district in the state to have students that young in possession of their own computer.
The next day, the district issued more sobering numbers. Flagler seniors’ SAT scores this year dropped to a 10-year low in math and reading. The district’s reading-math composite score has fallen to 960. That’s 16 points lower than the state average. It’s 50 points lower than the national average.
Put another way: Flagler students are in the 38th percentile in math, which means that 62 percent of the nation’s students scored higher. They’re in the 45th percentile in reading, and the 44th percentile in writing.
The drop was especially pronounced at Flagler Palm Coast High School, where this year’s 259 seniors who took the test scored seven points lower than last year in both reading and writing, and 14 points lower in math. Over five years, FPC’s math score has tumbled 39 points, its reading score 27 points, its writing score 21 points.
Matanzas High School students have historically fared better: the student body is smaller, richer and less diverse. And the evidence is indisputable: the better off a student, the better the score, and significantly so. FPC has 60 to 65 percent of its students on free or reduced lunch, almost double the proportion on free or reduced lunches 10 years ago.
Minorities also have historically done less well on the SAT and other standardized tests. That’s the case across the nation. For Flagler, the lower scores may be a reflection of years of economic difficulties compounded by the district’s fluid student population. Students move in and out of Flagler at higher rates than in more settled districts.
Matanzas’s 238 college-bound seniors combined for a 988 in reading and math, a five-point drop from last year, driven mostly by a nine-point drop in reading. Math scores went up four points.
Matanzas also crossed a landmark for the first time in its history: its composite ACT scores—the other nationally normed college-bound test—were better than the state average b y one decimal point. Matanzas scored a composite 19.7. The state average is 19.6. But both Matanzas and state are still well behind the national average of 21.
Overall, Flagler’s ACT scores were more encouraging, with the district average rising again, as they did last year, though modestly, and remaining still well below averages from 2007 to 2010.
“It’s mixed,” Shawn Schmidli, the district’s testing coordinator, said. “I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight the positive there with Matanzas eclipsing the state average of the ACT for the first time.” Both Matanzas and FPC are “trending upward” on the ACT. “But at the same time we do notice some concerning data with regards to our SAT scores and that’s something we plan on addressing.”
The scores will be part of the discussion at the next administrative meeting with the district’s high school principals. For now, the district has not had time to analyze the numbers to determine why SAT scores have been dropping, while ACT scores have been rising.
But Lynette Shott, the principal at FPC, has been taking account of the decline in SAT scores of the past few years. “We feel what we needed to do was to push our students toward those more rigorous courses and more upper level courses,” Shott said. That started last year with a greater push to get students into the IB and pre-IB program as well as to encourage students to enroll in Advanced Placement classes. Doing so improves students’ overall performances, especially in the core subjects, and eventually leads to higher scores on standardized test scores.
Shott’s approach worked: enrollment in the IB program has nearly doubled to close to 90 students this year. To enroll more students in AP classes, Shott organized meetings between students and mentor-like figures (including Schmidli, a former AP teacher) who could speak first-hand about the advantages of more rigorous classes. Shott also included enrolled students who could speak to students at their level. “Peer to peer is the best way we can alleviate any fears or encourage the students to really take that challenge,” she said. The approach diminished what she terms the “fear factor” of more advanced classes, and increased enrollment.
But results will take time.
The drop in SAT scores has nothing to do with the fact that almost 1,000 juniors took the test in February. The scores released this week are only those of college-bound seniors, and do not include scores from the February testing. At the time, some school board members feared that by giving the test to every junior, the results would inevitably skew downward and give a bad impression of the district. While that may still be true regarding the results themselves (which the district has not produced), it has no bearing on results of this year’s college-bound seniors.
Schmidli speculated about some reasons why the SAT scores have dropped. There is a possibility that more students are being shifted to the SAT than to the SAT when they’re taking such tests not because they’re college bound, but because they failed a portion of the FCAT test, which they need to pass to graduate. Florida law allows those students to alternately take the SAT or the ACT, and should they score at a certain level or higher, they have what’s called a “concordance score,” which enables them to meet the requirements for graduation.
The state had been seeing droves of students who failed the FCAT shift to the ACT in previous years. So the state raised the score required on the ACT to get a concordance score. That provoked a possible shift to the SAT. But if that were the case, the total number of students taking the SAT would have risen in Flagler. It has not, at least not in the last three years, when the total number of test-takers has hovered around 500. The district’s population has been similarly stagnant.
Schmidli also notes that the trend in colleges now is to move away from high SAT scores as a qualification for admission. “You still have some colleges that do but there’s a growing trend of colleges not looking at that data for enrollment requirements,” he said.