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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

What SAT scores tell us about private school performance

By CINDI ROSS SCOPPE - Associate Editor, The State Newspaper

THE SAT scores came out last week, and the news was terrible: Students in South Carolina scored 131 points lower than their counterparts nationally.

That sounds worse than you remember? Well, that’s because the number you heard was for all college-bound seniors in South Carolina. The 131-point gap was between S.C. students who attend what the College Board calls “independent schools” and their counterparts nationally.

Our public school students lagged their national counterparts by just 44 points. A third group, from religiously affiliated schools, had a 23-point gap.

I had never looked at private school scores before last week, because what private schools do (within the confines of the law) is the business of private schools, and the parents whose kids attend them. What public schools do, by contrast, is the business of us all, whether our kids attend those schools or not, whether we even have kids or not.

But my interest changed when the folks who want taxpayers to foot the bill for private school hit on a new way to trash the public schools, which they apparently figure is the only way to convince anyone that we should throw tax money at private schools: They made a big deal about the difference between SAT scores among public and private school students.

Their SAT assault on the public schools was built on the fact that the state’s 2-point improvement over 2007 was due to a strong performance by non-public schools; public school scores actually dropped 5 points.

What they didn’t bother to mention was how low those independent school scores are compared to independent schools nationally. Or how, when you look over the past decade instead of just the past year, it’s the public schools that have done the best job closing the gap — gaining 34 points on the national average, while independent schools gained 32 points and religious schools gained just 15 points compared to their counterparts nationally.

As for the achievement gap between black and white students — well, it’s anybody’s guess how well non-public schools are doing on that count. The College Board doesn’t say how black private school students do vs. white private school students, and the schools don’t have to tell us anything. For all we know, the problem is worse in private schools.

It’s true that private/religious school students score better than public school students, here and across the country. That’s no surprise. Almost by definition, kids who attend those schools have the most important ingredient to success — parents who are interested and involved in their education; you’d probably find similar results if you compared the public school kids who attend magnet schools to the ones who don’t.

Add to that the fact that private schools get to select their students — and send the ones they don’t want back to the public schools — and it’s amazing that private school students outscore public school students by only about 60 points, on a 2,400-point scale.

It is not my intention to trash private schools. Some of them do a great job, some an adequate job and some a sorry job. Just like the public schools.

And I suspect that if they were called on to explain why their kids do so much worse on the SAT than kids attending similar schools in the rest of the country, you’d hear a lot of familiar answers: The SAT isn’t a good tool for comparing schools. Our kids are poorer — or less well-off — than kids nationally, and SAT scores track income.

Those aren’t excuses; they’re facts. In the case of income, a fact that our state has to acknowledge and work harder than most states to overcome.

Fortunately, the pay-parents-to-abandon-the-public-schools crowd has helped us to remember that they’re facts that don’t suddenly change when you move from public to private schools. The only thing that changes then is that nobody is obligated to explain to the taxpayers why they’re not doing a better job overcoming them.

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