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Posted: 10:52 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013

AJC special report: SAT scores rise with family wealth. A notable exception in state: Norcross High 

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By Maureen Downey

 The AJC education team looked at recently released 2013 SAT scores for metro Atlanta high schools and found something that critics have long said: Scores are closely tied to a factor beyond any student's aptitude: the amount of money their parents have.

For its special report, the newspaper matched high school average scores with an often-used index for poverty, the percentage of students eligible for federally subsidized school meals.

According to the AJC report:

The results were clear: The higher a school's percentage of poor kids, the worse that school tended to perform on the SAT. Indeed, the data show a line no poor school could cross: None with two-thirds or more of its students in poverty was able to match or exceed the state average SAT score of 1452 out of a possible 2400.

Every school with a poverty rate over 80 percent scored below 1400. Every school with a poverty rate under 20 percent scored above 1500.

The AJC's findings offer numerical support for arguments by critics who have long complained that the test predicts poverty as much as academic success.

"The correlation between SATtest scores and family income is stronger than the correlation between SAT scores and the thing it claims to predict: first-year college grades, " said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for Boston-based FairTest, a testing industry watchdog.

Officials at the College Board, the private company that administers the test, said poor students are at a disadvantage academically, a reality reflected in their SAT scores. "Poverty has an impact on student achievement for obvious reasons, " said James Montoya, the College Board's vice president for higher education.

Montoya said poor students are more likely to attend schools where rigorous academic coursework is not as available. Minority students, who are disproportionately poor, are also less likely to sign up for rigorous coursework such as Advanced Placement classes even if they have demonstrated the ability to handle that work.

"While the AJC found a strong, consistent link between poverty and poor performance on the SAT, one school stood out.

Even with 65 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-priced meals, Norcross High in Gwinnett County had an average score of 1513, placing it among the top third of metro Atlanta schools.

School officials say Norcross has a long-standing tradition and culture --- they call it the "Norcross way" --- that has helped to relax poverty's grip on outcomes on the make-or-break test.

Several of the school's top students said teachers push kids to excel regardless of students' background. Lorenzo Carter, 17, transferred there from a high-poverty high school in southwest Atlanta. The star athlete said he was confronted by demanding teachers. "It's a totally different world coming here, " he said. "The teachers just push you to be great."

Darrell Cicchetti, an English teacher, has taught elsewhere and said Norcross has comparatively high standards. In other schools, he said high performers were steered into Advanced Placement courses while the rest were idled in less challenging classrooms that were "almost like a holding cell."

Cicchetti speculated that the school's mix of wealth and poverty --- some kids come from fancy homes, others from rundown apartments --- buttressed a demanding culture and high expectations. "If a school has always been completely low, maybe the expectations are low, " he said. "I think having two extremes has probably been an asset here."

Sean O'Connor, another English teacher, said the school also has long-standing traditions that bolster teacher quality. Consider "sacred Wednesdays."

Every week, teachers gather for an hour without phone calls or visits from students or parents. They discuss their work, and there is enough trust to share their failures. Anyone with a lesson that bombed will hear plenty of suggestions for improvements, O'Connor said.

Norcross stands as a rare exception to the relationship between poverty and test outcomes. Only one other school with more than half its students in poverty --- Duluth High, also in Gwinnett --- managed to beat the state's average score.

Maureen Downey

About Maureen Downey

Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for 12 years.

Connect with Maureen Downey on:FacebookTwitter

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