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How to Compare High Schools Using SAT Scores

Posted by Dora Seigel | Dec 5, 2015 8:00:00 PM

SAT General Info

 

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If you’re reading this article, I assume you’re in search of a good high school. When you compare high schools, average SAT score is a useful tool. What does an average SAT score represent? Why should you care about a school’s average SAT score? How do you even find a school’s average SAT score? I’ll answer that and more in this guide.

 

What Does a High School’s Average SAT Score Represent?

When considering what a high school’s average SAT score represents, you need to know what the SAT measures. While the College Board may argue that an SAT score simply measures a student’s academic ability, the SAT measures not only academic ability but also other things such as perseverance. What I mean by perseverance is a student’s determination to do well.

While a genius might be able to get a 2400 on the SAT with no practice, a student with just slightly above-average intelligence can also get a 2400 with enough practice. For this reason, an SAT score reveals both a student’s academic ability and their willingness to work hard.

A high school’s average SAT score represents these same qualities: academic ability and perseverance. However, in terms of an entire high school, its “academic ability” is dependent upon the quality of education it provides, and its “perseverance” is dependent upon the caliber of students. A high school's average SAT score helps answer questions such as: Do the students at that school care about their education? Do they study? Do they practice for the SAT? Do they care about pursuing a four-year degree?

 

Why Should You Care About a High School’s Average SAT Score?

You should care about a high school’s average SAT score because higher SAT scores can indicate a better quality of education and a better quality of student at that school. Since the SAT measures academic ability and your education is responsible for your knowledge, the better the quality of education you receive, the better you’ll perform on the SAT. Though, as I said before, your SAT score is also affected by how much you prepare for the test.

If a high school’s average SAT score is high, the students at that high school are probably more invested in their high school education and more committed to getting into a 4-year college than students at other high schools. These students probably study more and spend more time preparing to take the SAT.

You should want to send your child to a high school with a higher average SAT score, where they’ll likely be surrounded by like-minded, hard-working students and receive a higher quality of education.

 

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Devil’s Advocate: Why Shouldn’t You Rely Too Heavily On Average SAT Score?

A school’s average SAT score can indicate the quality of education and students, but it may not give you the full picture.

As an example, some public high schools have magnet (or gifted) programs that are separated from the “regular” track at that high school. These programs usually have a superior quality of students and teachers compared to the rest of the school.

My public high school had an International Baccalaureate magnet program. The admissions requirements for this program were high, but there were no requirements for students on the “regular” high school track. This program had superior teachers who only taught IB classes.

I’d bet the average SAT score for IB students was higher than the average SAT score for students on the “regular” track. However, the average SAT score for my high school does not separate IB and non-IB students. The number includes the scores of all students at the school. For this reason, you can’t distinguish what the caliber of education and student will be within a specific magnet program versus the “regular” track.

As I said before, your SAT score is also affected by how much effort you put into studying for the test. If you attend a high school with a low average SAT score, that does not mean you’re going to have a low SAT score. If you attend a high school with a high average SAT score, that does not guarantee you'll get a high SAT score. No matter which high school you attend, you can still study, learn the test format and strategies, and achieve a high score on the SAT.

However, you should try to attend the high school with the best quality of students and teachers so that you’ll receive the best education you can, be challenged in school, and be well prepared for the SAT.

 

How to Find a School’s Average SAT Score

There are four methods for tracking down a public school’s average SAT score:

  • Through the Department of Education website (Note: This only works for PUBLIC high schools. Also, this is the ONLY way to find average SAT scores by school district.)
  • Through the school’s website (however, not all schools publish this information on their websites)
  • By emailing a school administrator
  • Simply Google Searching “[High School Name] Average SAT Score” (though this can be unreliable)

The best method to find average SAT score by high school is to use the Department of Education’s website for your state. NOTE: this will only work for some states. For a full explanation of how to find a district’s or specific public high school’s average SAT score using this method (and for a list of states that don't provide this data), read our article on SAT Scores by High School and District. This approach is the only way to guarantee you’re getting up-to-date, correct, unbiased information.

For private high schools (or as another search option for public high schools), you could try the Google search method, looking on the high school’s website, or sending an email to an administrator at that high school.

However, websites and Google search can often have outdated information (i.e. SAT score averages from three years ago). Outdated information is still somewhat useful as it can give you a sense of how the school is performing; however, there can be big score differences in just a few years if there are changes in the school administration and teaching staff. There's also the possibility that the school doesn't post this data on its website.

If you email administrators, you may also be given outdated information (if they haven’t seen the most recent statistics). Also, it may take them a while to respond to your request with their busy schedule or if they’re on summer vacation.

 

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What Should You Look for in SAT Data?

In the SAT data, you should be looking at the average composite SAT score. NOTE: Typically, states publish average SAT scores by section. You’ll need to add the average section scores together to approximate the average composite SAT score if they don't include composite score as a separate category. The average composite SAT score is the main number you should be concerned with. The higher the number, the better. Read more about that in our other guide: SAT Scores by High School and District.

You can also look at the individual section scores. The Math section score may give you a sense of how strong or weak the Math program is. The closer to 800 (the highest possible section score), the better. A high score most likely means a higher quality math program. The Critical Reading and Writing sections (or Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section - for data from 2016 or later) will give you a sense of the quality of English education at that school. Again, same as Math, the closer to 800 (the highest possible section score), the better. A high score most likely means a higher quality of English classes.

From the data, you can also find the fraction of students who took the SAT at a particular high school. NOTE: some states will only list the number of students who took the SAT and will not include overall school enrollment. You will not be able to figure out the fraction of students who took the SAT unless you have both pieces of data.

However, if your state does provide you with the total enrollment number and the number of test-takers, such as California does, you can determine the fraction of students who took the SAT. As an example here is a screenshot of the SAT data from the California Department of Education’s website:

 

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To determine the fraction of students who took the SAT at a specific high school, take the number of test takers (listed under the NumTstTakr column) and divide it by the number of enrolled students (under Enroll912). If I were looking at Alameda Science and Technology Institute (the highlighted school), the fraction of students who took the SAT would be:

61 / 169 or about 36%

Don't read too much into this number because it doesn't tell the whole story. The enrollment includes the TOTAL number of students, and you wouldn’t expect Freshmen or Sophomores to be taking the SAT. While 36% seems small, you need to take into account:

  • The fact that Alameda Science and Technology Institute has about 50 students per grade level.
  • Typically, only Juniors and Seniors will take the SAT in a given year, and there are about 100 Juniors and Seniors at Alameda.
  • Some students may opt to take the ACT instead.
When accounting for all of that, it seems that close to 100% of Alameda Science and Technology Institute students will end up taking the SAT or ACT before they graduate, which is impressive.

While you can look at the fraction of students who took the SAT at a specific high school, the more important number is the average SAT score for that high school.

 

Summary

A high school's average SAT score can reveal the quality of education and quality of students at that school. However, when you compare high schools, their average SAT scores will not always tell you the whole story. For example, at schools with magnet programs, magnet students' SAT scores are mixed with the "regular" students' SAT scores to provide the school's average SAT score. Students in the magnet track may have a higher average SAT score (as they may be receiving a higher quality education and be harder working students), but you wouldn't be able to tell from the overall average SAT score of that school.

There are several options for finding out a high school's average SAT score. Not all methods will work in all states or for all schools. Check out our other guide on SAT Scores by High School and District to find out the best method for you.

When you find the average SAT score data, you should look for the composite SAT score. The higher this score is, the better.

 

What’s Next?

If you're taking the SAT, you should learn about the format of the new SAT, and also, check out some general tips on how to prepare for the SAT.

Before you start studying for the SAT, figure out what’s a good score for your target college.

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

Get eBook: 5 Tips for 160+ Points

 

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Dora Seigel
About the Author

As an SAT/ACT tutor, Dora has guided many students to test prep success. She loves watching students succeed and is committed to helping you get there. Dora received a full-tuition merit based scholarship to University of Southern California. She graduated magna cum laude and scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT. She is also passionate about acting, writing, and photography.



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