Do Private Schools Guarantee Higher SAT Scores?

 The College Board’s report for 2010 showed that on average SAT test takers from private schools performed better than those from public schools.  Is there a causal relationship between attending going to private schools and doing better on the SAT? It is hard to say, but some parents and students clearly think so.  In an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, D. Aileen Doddby shows how families are paying the high prices for private schools in the hopes that their children will get into top colleges:

For many students, the road to the Ivy League begins in private school.

In the midst of the private school shopping season metro Atlanta parents are spending thousands of dollars – some even taking out student loans – to help their kids get into private schools to get a leg up on the competition for elite colleges and state universities.

A big reason parents are willing to pay: private schools’ track record in outscoring public schools on the SAT. 

According to the College Board’s 2010 Group Profile Report: public schools had an average score of 1497 out of 2400 while the average score for independent schools was 1700. Religious-affiliated schools scored the highest at 1597.

Metro Atlanta’s private schools boast average SAT scores in the 1980s — nearly 200 points higher than the highest-achieving local public schools.

The advantage comes from working students hard. But it helps, too, that private schools have some of the best students with which to work. Typically private school students come from a self-selected pool of kids from wealthier, educated homes, although a state scholarship program is opening up private school to more low-income students.

Still, private school success on the SAT is undeniable.

“If we admit a student we work hard as we can to help them succeed,” said Stuart Gulley, president of Woodward Academy, which has class sizes as small as 16 yet is the largest private school in the continental United States with more than 2,700 students. “Last year, we graduated 256 students and all 256 were admitted to four-year colleges around the world. We have one at Harvard, some at Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt and Emory. And our students tell us they were well-prepared.”

Woodward Academy’s averge SAT score: 1838.

Kaki Bennett, 18, who dreams of being a pediatric oncologist, spent her full education at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School and is leaving her senior year with an SAT score of 2280. She has already received two college acceptance letters and is awaiting several others.

She credits her school’s atmosphere – and her parent’s financial support – for her success. Tuition at HIES is $19,720

“My teachers really wanted to see me succeed,” she said. “I could walk into their office, ask them a question about chemical equilibrium and come out an hour later after chatting about the news, what’s going on in my life and my goals.”

Top public schools say they, too, place students in elite colleges without the $5,600 to $20,000 a year in tuition Georgia parents pay for private school.

“Our expectation starts with the core belief that all students can learn at high levels,” said Steve Flynt, associate superintendent for school leadership at Gwinnett County Public Schools. The district of more than 161,000 has an 84.7 percent graduation rate, higher than the state’s average.

High-performing public schools like Northview High routinely sends kids to the Ivy League and to Georgia colleges. Principal Pamela Spalla says her campus of 1,892 students half of whom are minorities, is proud of its SAT score of 1728, the highest in metro Atlanta.

“We have more students going to UGA than any other school in the state of Georgia,” Spalla said. “I think that every North Fulton high school is as good as a private school.”

Alpharetta High School in Fulton had an average score of 1719 on the SAT and 1711 was the high score for Walton High in Cobb County.

Among private schools responding to an AJC survey on SAT scores, Pace Academy led the pack with a score of 1984. Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School reported a 1900; Woodward an 1838; Atlanta Girls’ School, 1800 and St. Pius X Catholic High School, a 1790, among others.

A 2007 Center for Education Policy Report found that private school students appeared to have an edge on getting into elite colleges due to SAT scores. A recent Wall Street Journal study found about 51 percent of freshmen at Georgetown University in 2010 are private school graduates and 48 percent of University of Pennsylvania freshmen.

Patrick Winter, assistant director of admissions at UGA, says it gives “no preference,” to private school applicants over public ones. “We look at the student based on their own merits within the context of what was available at their school. Did the student pursue the rigorous curriculum? What kind of activities did they get involved in?”

Harvard University spokesman Jeff Neal agrees: “There is no formula for gaining admission …We admit students, not schools.”

But parents believe in the private school advantage on the SAT and the cache that comes with being the product of an elite private school.

Ressie Hardin of Jonesboro, lives in Clayton County and says she is fleeing the district after its past accreditation issues. She has signed on with A Better Chance, which helps minority and low-income families navigate the independent school selection process. She wants to give her 10-year-old daughter a chance at a challenging environment and a chance at getting admitted to an elite college.

Hardin is now looking at five private schools including Woodward, which provided $2.7 million in financial aid to students in 2010, The Lovett School, which issues laptops to students, and Westminster, which offers single-gender classes for middle schoolers and has extras like a rock climbing wall and squash courts.

The mother is exhausted filling out admissions and financial aid forms, which can be “like college applications,” but she wants the best for her child.

“The rigorous academic setting will help give her more opportunities to get into college.”

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