It looked more like a football rally than an academic celebration.
The cheerleaders at Hephzibah High School gave a Rebels football jersey to Gov. Sonny Perdue and pompoms to state schools Superintendent Kathy Cox. The band played, and students held their trophy high.
But this was no sporting event. Monday's assembly was designed to honor the school with the Governor's Cup for recording a 113-point gain on SAT scores, the highest among Class AAAA schools.
Mr. Perdue called it a "friendly competition" to challenge schools and boost the state's low national ranking.
Such competition, however, is discouraged by the College Board, the organization that administers the college entrance exam.
"Media and others often rank states, districts and schools on the basis of SAT scores despite repeated warnings that such rankings are invalid," the policy states.
The College Board says the SAT is a strong indicator of trends in the college-bound population. But the board warns that it alone should never be used for comparisons because demographics and other factors can have a strong effect on scores.
Perdue spokesman Shane Hix said the competition focuses on which school has made the most improvement and does not rank schools.
"We want to reward those success stories and use those as an example," he said.
It is clear the governor's challenge to schools last year to raise SAT scores by at least 10 points was endorsed by Richmond County Superintendent Charles Larke. He has used SAT prep classes to raise scores and help students get into college.
At Hephzibah, 2004 graduate Maggie Spivey increased her score enough to get into Harvard University, and Fred Rowland raised his enough for Duke.
Still, SAT scores are a sensitive topic as educators feel intense pressure to raise scores.
But it's always a tricky numbers game.
During an Aug. 31 news conference, Dr. Larke said there were more test-takers this year than last year in Richmond County. He later released figures from the College Board that showed a large drop in numbers tested.
College Board spokeswoman Kristin Carnahan said a drop in the number of test-takers almost always triggers an increase in scores. That's why the states ranked highest on SAT scores have participation rates in the single digits and low-ranking states have higher participation rates. Georgia's participation rate last year was 73 percent.
"Participation rates and the variation is a big reason why we don't encourage school-by-school, district-by-district, state-by-state comparisons," Ms. Carnahan said. "A state, for example, that has 8 percent of graduates taking the SAT can't be validly compared to a state that has 75 percent of its graduates taking the SAT."
In Columbia County, the participation rate was 75 percent and the county average dropped 12 points. Richmond County saw a nine-point gain with 40 percent of its seniors taking the test.
On the school level, no other local school saw a bigger drop in the number of test-takers this year than Hephzibah High. College Board officials recorded 86 senior test-takers at Hephzibah High last year and 40 this year. The school's average SAT score jumped from 922 to 1,035.
At Glenn Hills High School, which had the largest increase in test-takers, the average dropped 53 points
As an explanation, Dr. Larke said that not all senior classes have the same number of students folowing the college prep track.
Dr. Larke has overseen 10 straight years of SAT increases. He has also witnessed a district in which the number of recorded test-takers plummeted.
In 1995, there were 982 test-takers. That has fallen to 604, something the superintendent attributes to a decline in county enrollment from 37,000 to about 33,000 over the years and an increase in the number of students going to technical colleges, which require a different entrance test.
On Monday, Mr. Perdue presented Hephzibah High with a $2,000 grant from Turner Broadcasting that will help with instructional services. And the governor told cheering students that Turner has agreed to provide the students with tickets to a 2005 Braves game.
Mr. Perdue is hoping his Governor's Cup competition will ignite a spark that helps pull Georgia out of the SAT cellar.
"You see, I am one of those students who enjoyed those Friday nights on the football field, and the competition and how much you wanted to beat your rival across town or across the state to get into the finals," the governor said. "I want to bring a spirit of friendly competition to improving those scores, and I want to see who would step up and meet that challenge."
Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gov. Sonny Perdue awarded the Governor's Cup to the high school in each division that saw the highest gains in SAT scores:
A: Portal Middle High School, Bulloch County
AA: Coosa High School, Floyd County
AAA: East Hall High School, Hall County
AAAA: Hephzibah High School, Richmond County
AAAAA: Northview High School, Fulton County