COLUMBIA -- Experts say there's no mystery to South Carolina's poor performance on the Scholastic Assessment Test that many colleges use when considering whether to admit students.
The key is poverty.
South Carolina's 1998 high school seniors ranked last among the states in average SAT scores at 951, compared with a national average of 1017.
A review of the scores by a Columbia newspaper shows that generally, schools' SAT scores fall as the percentage of poor students rises.
On average, scores fall 3.5 points for each 1 percent increase in the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches, the newspaper reported.
Free-lunch eligibility is commonly used to measure poverty among students. This year, students living in a four-person family with an income below $21,385 are eligible for a free lunch.
Not every impoverished student performed poorly on the test and not every wealthy student did well. Other factors include the percentage of students tested, the percentage of students who took the practice SAT before taking the real test, and the percentage of students taking higher-level courses.
But in the Columbia newspaper's analysis, poverty was the key indicator of performance.
"Even if you improved education as much as you could in this state, you'd still trail (in comparisons to other states) because South Carolina is such a poor state," said Lala Carr Steelman, a University of South Carolina sociology professor.
Educators note the test wasn't designed to compare schools, and some question how well the SAT does what it was designed to do: predict readiness for college.
"It's an apples-and-oranges comparison because there are so many other factors to consider," Ms. Steelman said. "It's better than nothing in predicting how you'll do in college, but it doesn't explain much."
But schools do use it to compare themselves and politicians use it for their own gain.
Industries might use it to decide where to locate, said Bob Staton, a member of the state's Education Oversight Committee and chairman of the state Chamber of Commerce's education committee.
"It's harder to get businesses to consider locating in areas where scores are low, so it's important that we do everything we can to help them finds ways to improve," he said.