Berkeley Students Show Decline in SAT Scores, Large Gains in AP Scores

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday June 03, 2009 - 10:52:00 AM

Berkeley High School students showed a sharp decline in 2008 SAT math and verbal scores, but large gains in Advanced Placement tests, according to a report prepared by the Berkeley Unified School District. 

BUSD Director of Student Evaluation and Assessment Dr. Rebecca Cheung and Berkeley High science teacher Aaron Glimme presented an analysis of the school’s Preliminary SAT, SAT and AP scores before the Berkeley Board of Education Wednesday. 

A significantly larger number of sophomores at the high school were able to take the Preliminary SAT (PSAT) last year, Cheung said, because an anonymous donor paid the $13 fee for each of the school’s nearly 900 10th graders. 

All the school’s white 10th graders took the test; 87 percent of Latino students took the test; African-American students had the lowest participation rate at 68 percent. 

The PSAT is a voluntary test co-sponsored by the College Board and National Merit Scholarship Program to help students prepare for the SAT. 

District Superintendent Bill Huyett asked Berkeley High officials why so many African-American students had not taken the test even though the fee was covered. Berkeley High Vice Principal Amy Fry said many students had chosen to arrive at school during lunch, after the tests had been administered. 

“So we had a large number of African-American students not come to school just because they didn’t want to take the test,” Huyett responded. 

Cheung said the district will encourage more 10th graders to take the PSAT next year because the private donor had promised to continue the funding. 

Seventy-six percent of white 10th graders scored in the top 50 percent nationally. Both Cheung and the school board called this a remarkable achievement, praising the students on their success. 

Twenty percent of Latino students scored in the top 50 percent nationwide. Five percent of African-Americans scored in the top 5 percent nationally. 

Participation at Berkeley High’s six small schools varied, as did performance, with 49 percent of students at Berkeley International High School scoring in the top 50 percent nationally, followed by Academic Choice (48 percent), Arts and Humanities Academy (42 percent), School of Social Justice and Ecology (26 percent), Communication Arts and Sciences (22 percent) and Community Partnerships Academy (5 percent). 

Cheung said the 10th grade results came with a caveat because the students who might not otherwise have taken the tests in the absence of a scholarship were competing with a more elite group of students. 

“The distribution might have looked different if the anonymous donor didn’t give us the money for the tests,” she told the Planet. “We are pitting them against kids from all over the nation who are paying for it. These are typically high-achieving kids. So they are competing with other kids who choose to take the test. While that’s not a bad thing, we don’t want to over-penalize our students for low scores. What if there were English learners present?” 

SAT verbal scores for 2007-08 show a 28-point decline from 2003-04, when the average score for 11th graders at Berkeley High was 569. Last year the average score fell to 541, the lowest in five years. 

SAT math scores showed a significant downward trend since 2003-04, when the average score was 586. Last year the average SAT math score was 546, a drop of 40 points. 

Cheung noted that although the school’s average SAT scores were better than the county and the state averages, they were declining over time, especially in math. 

Superintendent Bill Huyett said he was concerned by this negative trend. 

“A 40-point drop over three or four years is precipitous,” he said. “Looks like if it drops next year we will be below the county average.” 

Huyett said the news was surprising, given the various challenging courses students often take, such as calculus and pre-calculus. 

“It looks like kids are not that prepared in math,” he said, adding that he would like school and district officials to investigate the trend. 

Glimme said there could be a number of reasons for the downward trend in math and English, one of them being that perhaps more students were taking the ACT, a different college entrance test, leading to fewer taking the SAT. He added that because the ACT had not reported Berkeley High School’s participation rate to the district for the last two years, there was no way to be sure. 

White 11th graders in every small school scored above the state average. Latino students scored at or below and African-Americans scored below the state average. 

White and multi-ethnic 11th graders also had higher participation than their Latino and African American classmates. 

Over 60 percent of the students who took the SAT last year scored over 1500, higher than the county and the state. 


Advanced Placement tests 

Administered by the College Board, the Advanced Placement program consists of college-level courses in 21 subject areas which are recognized by almost all public and private universities. 

Students at Berkeley High prepare for AP tests by enrolling in AP level courses. The tests are primarily taken by 10th through 12th graders and the scores range from 1 to 5, with a score between 3 and 5 considered to be passing. 

The district’s analysis shows a very strong increase in the number of AP tests taken over the years, from 43 percent in 2003-04 to 68 percent in 2007-08. 

Cheung said the number of passing scores-a student can take any number of AP tests-is up from 273 five years ago to 714 last year for white students, and from 116 for black students to 451 in the same time frame. 

Huyett called the results “remarkable,” and a start toward closing the achievement gap. 

Cheung said that changes in AP course offering-such as the inclusion of subjects like art and art history-had expanded the number of tests taken by students and also the number of students taking them. 

Passing scores were evenly distributed across multiple subject areas, she said. 

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell announced Monday, June 1, that the Obama administration had given the state Department of Education $4.3 million in AP Test Fee Program grants to help low-income students take AP and International Baccalaureate tests. 

Statewide, the number of students enrolled in AP and IB courses grew 112.6 percent from 228,019 to 484,694 in the last decade. 

In 2007-08, schools reported that 96,174 low-income students were taking the AP and IB tests. The number is expected to grow 15 percent-to 110,599-in 2008-09. State education officials said the massive growth indicates the need for assistance by low-income students to offset the cost of higher education. 

AP and IB tests typically cost around $86 to $88 per subject, which the state education office said may be difficult for some families to pay. 

The Advanced Placement Test Fee Program, which the state says has helped increased student participation and achievement in AP tests, allows schools to ask low-income students to pay only $5 for every subject they test in.