Georgia and South Carolina schools again find themselves at the bottom of the heap in SAT scores, a distinction earned despite the states' improvements over last year.
Scores for Augusta-area students also improved, but all systems except Columbia County were below the national average.
South Carolina, with an average combined score of 954, was at the bottom of the list. Georgia scored only slightly better - a combined score of 961 - finishing next to last.
Richmond County's math scores went up 4 points, to 448, and verbal scores went up 3 points, to 449. Totaled, Richmond County students averaged 897 on the Scholastic Assessment Test.
"Well, it's getting there," said Carol Rountree, director of guidance and testing. "But we're still below 1,000."
Columbia County's score of 1,015 climbed back over the national average. The system had dipped below that mark last year. The national average is 1,013.
This year's score was a 10-point increase over last year's 1,005. Columbia County's verbal scores went up 6 points to 514. In math, the county's students increased 4 points to 501, but were still below the national average.
Aiken County's students soared past the state average with a composite average of 983, and improved on last year's score by 12 points.
Edgefield County did not surpass the state average, but it's 928 composite score was a 38-point improvement over last year.
Georgia School Superintendent Linda Schrenko said she is unhappy with the lack of progress the state is making on the SAT.
Mrs. Schrenko noted students who took four years of advanced high school curriculum in Georgia scored above the national average on the SAT.
"Our top kids do fairly well. They score right up there with the best nationally," she said.
"Our schools must continue to ensure availability of advanced course offerings and our students must be encouraged to enter the advanced course pipeline earlier in their education. While not all students should be required to take advanced math and chemistry, we can now clearly see that raising the bar earlier in a child's education will lead to significant advancement for Georgia's students."
South Carolina's School Superintendent Barbara Nielsen made a similar observation. Scores averaged 1,045 among students who had taken at least 20 of the rigorous academic courses the state Education Department recommends for college-bound students.
"The message is very simple and very powerful: If you want to do well on the SAT, you have to take the right courses," she said. "We aren't doing children any favors if we let them take the easy way out."
Local school officials attributed the increases to better instruction.
"We think (the increase) is a reflection of our high school curriculums being in line with the skills and knowledge students need on the SAT," said Frank Roberson, superintendent of instructional services with Aiken County schools.
South Aiken High School was the only high school out of the county's seven to exceed the national average, doing so by eight points for a 1,021 total.
"Obviously, we're elated," said South Aiken High Principal William Gassman, who attributed the results to "good teaching, conscientious students and supportive parents."
"And a good number of our teachers will do SAT-type questions on a regular basis to keep our students familiar with the process," he added.
In Columbia County, Superintendent Lynn Cadle attributed the increase to changes in instruction and a sharper focus on math.
"We're really pleased," she said. "We know we have some areas to try and improve.
Scores everywhere may seem significantly higher than last year because the College Board adjusted the scoring scale of the test. The test remains the same difficulty, but officials re-centered the scores to make 500 the average for both math and verbal tests.
The board refigured past scores for purpose of comparison. For example, last year's national average of 910 became 1,010 score under the re-centered formula.
In Richmond County, school administrators were pleased to find another trend they'd hoped for, a decrease in the number of students taking the SAT.
In 1995-96, 34 percent of Richmond County seniors took the SAT, down from the 47 percent who took it in 1994-95.
"Maybe that's a reason for our increase, our improvement," Ms. Rountree said. "Because then you have the ones who are seriously preparing for college."
Nationally, 41 percent of seniors took the SAT in 1995-96. In Georgia, 63 percent of seniors took it.
Two weeks ago, Richmond County trustees passed new requirements for students taking the SAT using the system's test code. A school system's averages are tallied by special codes on each SAT form.
Students taking the SAT this year using Richmond County's code must complete Algebra 1 and geometry; four semesters of English; two lab sciences; civics and world history classes; 10 to 20 hours of SAT preparation with an adviser and have a PSAT score in their student records.
Overall:.... 897....Verbal:.... 449 Math:.... 448
Overall:.... 1015 Verbal:.... 514 Math:.... 501
Overall:.... 983 Verbal:.... 493 Math:.... 490
Overall:.... 928 Verbal:.... 474 Math:.... 454
Overall:.... 961 Verbal:.... 484 Math:.... 477
Overall:.... 954 Verbal:.... 480 Math:.... 474
Overall:.... 1013 Verbal:.... 505 Math:.... 508
Staff Writer Kelly Daniel contributed to this story.