SATs remain college standard

Consultant: GPA, class rank don’t provide accurate picture of knowledge

Straight-A students don’t always do well on SATs, and grade inflation at area schools may have something to do with it.

The next round of SATs are scheduled to be administered today, and they serve a useful purpose, said Ashley McNaughton, an education consultant who has four students from Blair County schools whom she is currently preparing for SATs.

“Grade inflation is everywhere,” she said.

It’s a reason colleges continue to require standardized test scores, she said.

“They need a standard by which to compare students from all schools, and a GPA does not work when many schools are inflating grades and offering entirely different curricula,” she said.

Grade inflation has been and continues to be an issue with college admissions.

“A high GPA does not translate to a high SAT score, and unfortunately, students who think they are ‘at the top’ do not prepare enough for the test, as they think it should be easy like many of their high school exams are,” she said.

McNaughton currently has two students from Altoona Area, one from Hollidaysburg and one from Bellwood.

Grade inflation may take various forms. It could be the awarding of higher grades than students deserve either to maintain a school’s academic reputation or as a result of diminished teacher expectations or a rise in the average grade given to students. That often happens through bonus questions or assignments after a lackluster test results, McNaughton said.

The word “inflation”

to Hollidaysburg Area Superintendent Bob Gildea’s ear sounds derogatory, he said. “I think it’s more grade inconsistency than grade inflation. It’s common for many factors. What the SAT does is provide a level playing field,” he said.

SATs are consistently administered whereas curriculum varies among schools depending on demographics. An example, Gildea said, may be that “school A” has very little poverty, and “school B” is a more rural school where proficiency is not as high.

There are national and state standards for what students must master to graduate, but how teachers deliver and assess those standards is a local decision.

The kinds of classes students take also might pump up their straight A image, McNaughton said.

“Another factor to take into consideration is the level of courses the student is taking which got them that high GPA. Students may have a 4.0 but are not taking the highest level of courses their high school offers. Obviously a 4.0 at the general education level is much different than that of an honors or AP student, and that will be clear when the SAT is taken.”

The schools where her students attend are not exempt from grade inflation, she said.

“I particularly noticed it at Altoona Area School District. Kids are taking nonacademic classes that are space fillers and they are bringing up their GPAs,” she said.

Some examples of courses at Altoona which count toward graduation are community service, “foods for healthy living” and business and marketing.

“They are meeting the requirements to get to college, but instead of taking more advanced classes, they are getting by with the minimum,” McNaughton said.

Those classes are aimed at students who already met graduation requirements and seek classes to be well-rounded, said Brad Hatch, Altoona Area Assistant Superintendent for secondary education.

He said those classes don’t weigh heavily on a student’s GPA because the calculation used to assemble the class rank assigns lower academic value to those classes.

“The feedback we’ve been getting from our graduates is that they are more prepared for college than their peers. We are preparing them well for their first couple of years in their university. There’s not a lot of repeating high school themes in college,” he said.

Standardized tests, including SATs that students take today, will count for one-third of the admissions decision at all Penn State campuses, Penn State Altoona Director of Enrollment Management Shari Routch said. The other option is the ACT, which is growing in popularity.

Two-thirds of the admission decision is based on high school academic records.

In general, freshmen struggle with math when they transition from high school to college. Routch sees a pattern.

“The biggest issue we see is deficiencies in math. Our tutoring center is 75 percent devoted to math tutoring. That is probably the area where students struggle the most their first year and need more support. But that’s a trend not just at Penn State Altoona,” Routch said.

The SAT continues to impact what is taught in high school.

“We got room to grow and will continue to up the rigor in our classes,” Altoona Area High School Principal Andrew Neely said. “We need to make sure the curriculum reflects the SAT. The SAT changes quite often. They change their format. It’s our job to make sure our classes are rigorous.”

Last year at Altoona Area, 47 percent of students who took the SAT met the state’s benchmark for college readiness. On a statewide level, out of more than 81,000 students 53 percent met the benchmark.

“So compared to the state, Altoona Area is right in there,” Neely said.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.