ATLANTA - Top Georgia students score far below their peers in other states on the SAT, a new study shows.
That comparison also holds for students from families with well-to-do, college-educated parents.
And states where most students take the SAT, as in Georgia, still have higher average scores than Georgia.
The study by the North Carolina Research Alliance released Wednesday to Board of Education members raises questions about longstanding claims that Georgia students score so poorly on the college-entrance test simply because too many of them take the exam, and too many come from poor families with uneducated parents.
"These scores are totally unacceptable," said outgoing Board Chairman J.T. Williams after hearing the study's findings.
The study led Department of Education officials to conclude schools must increase their focus on curriculum.
"Our students need to take harder classes, more rigorous classes," said Bob Bellamy, the DOE's associate superintendent for student learning and development.
The North Carolina Research Alliance performed the study at the request of Superintendent Linda Schrenko in an effort to help the state decide how to raise Georgia's historically mediocre scores. The preliminary results were presented Wednesday at the first meeting of the new state Board of Education, which was appointed in December.
Last year, Georgia students averaged 484 out of a possible 800 on the verbal section of the Scholastic Assessment Test, up one point from last year, and 477 out of a possible 800 on the math section, no change from 1995.
Nationally, the verbal score increased one point to 505, and the math average jumped two points to 508, according to results released by the College Board.
Georgia officials generally point to the fact that the state has a high poverty rate and large percentage of students taking the test to explain the low scores.
In some states with high average SAT scores, only top college-bound students take the test.
In Georgia, about 63 percent of eligible students take the SAT. However, the study released Wednesday showed states with a higher percentage of students taking the test still managed higher average scores.
It also showed, on average, that "A" high school students in Georgia scored 40 points below the national average for "A" students, and 53 points below in the case of "B" students.
Georgia students scored up to 60 points below comparable students in categories based on parental income or education.
Mr. Bellamy said educators have "time-honored ideas" why students haven't fared well on the test, but "they don't hold up."
The DOE has set a goal of reaching the Southeast average by 2000. That goal may be difficult; many Southern states have extremely high scores because only the top students take the test.
For instance, Alabama's average score was 162 points higher than Georgia's last year. However, only 8 percent of eligible Alabama students took the test.
Mrs. Schrenko last week asked state lawmakers for $250,000 for a test preparation program which guarantees a 100-point increase in one year.
Most educators are skeptical such improvement is possible.
Mr. Bellamy said changes such as increasing math requirements for high schoolers also will be necessary.
"The reality is the kind of things we can do will not lead to an immediate, dramatic improvement in scores," he said. "We need to look at our curriculum, look at what we are doing in the classroom.
"The goal is not just to raise SAT scores. The goal is to improve academic performance, whether they go to college or not."
The old school board in November approved a package of rule changes that would increase the time students spend in class and toughen high school graduation requirements. The new board is set to table the proposal Thursday because Mrs. Schrenko wants to present a comprehensive plan to raise standards next month.