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Making the Grade 

Local high schools help college-bound students prepare for SAT and ACT tests.

Private or archdiocesan, quality local high schools can be found in stately buildings rife with history, modern suburbia, or deep in the idyllic charm of Uptown and Old Metairie. And the moment a freshman student enters those hallowed doors for the first time, the specter of ACT/SAT test scores for college admission is already waiting.

On a national level, competition for college entry has reached the near equivalency of a Super Bowl, and it's apparent that private schools in the New Orleans area have maneuvered this scholarly minefield with considerable success. Ursuline Academy, Isidore Newman School, Louise McGehee School and Metairie Park Country Day School consistently achieve 100 percent college acceptance of all graduating students, and Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie boasts of ACT scores that normally are above both the state and national levels.

The obvious success of these schools goes beyond the singular idea that a rigorous curriculum alone will result in a high SAT/ACT test score necessary for college admission. Given equal importance is a personalized, hands-on approach that helps students find the college best suited to their needs, talents and ambitions. A common denominator in philosophy seems prevalent among these five schools: getting to know individual students, in addition to rigorous education, usually results in successful college matches.

Kim Wargo, head of Louise McGehee's upper school, says it starts with exposing a youngster to 'attainable goals" for their future in such a way that the student is able to peel back the layers of her own potential and discover where her true interest for a vocation lies. After these 'attainable" goals are met, a student is asked to 'stretch herself" to attain an even higher goal. McGehee School, an all-girls school, has a curriculum in place that is SAT/ACT-prep ready. A strong emphasis on reading, critical thinking and writing is combined with four years of math, science, history and English. As a test-prep tool provided in partnership with the Princeton Review, sophomores are offered an optional course called 'The College Edge." Other McGehee students attend outside prep courses such as Power Courses, Kaplan and Test Masters.

Success on any ACT/SAT test depends 'on what students put into each course," Wargo says. Like a majority of other private schools, McGehee does not refer students to one particular outside prep course, but provides parents with a list of options that have repeatedly passed muster when it comes to helping students achieve good scores. Although acceptance to Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Yale are impressive, Wargo also gives equal billing to smaller liberal arts colleges like Tuffts.

'Sometimes these provide an even richer educational experience for a student," Wargo says.

The major success story for venerable, 280-year-old Ursuline Academy is the multiple centuries of experience the school has had in educating women who went on to succeed in their chosen fields of endeavor. Today, during homeroom periods, Ursuline students are exposed to weekly standardized college test preparation. After-school test-prep programs and individualized tutors are also available to students, with special emphasis given to mathematics and English. (Students who enter Ursuline at the eighth-grade level wind up graduating with 32 school credits. That's 11 more than required by the state of Louisiana.) Gretchen Kane, president of the all-girls school, says a growing number of college admission offices consider skills such as leadership, empathy, community involvement and communication equal in importance to high college testing scores. Ursuline high-schoolers are required each year to go into the community and volunteer for a set number of hours, and are encouraged to exceed the minimum requirement. The school also sponsors its own volunteer activities in which students participate.

Ann Konigmarks, director of communications at Isidore Newman School, agrees that a student who graduates from a small college and goes on to a quiet, happy career is no less successful than someone who obtains a degree from Princeton Law School and sits on the Supreme Court. That's a strong and reassuring sentiment from a school whose alumni include, in addition to the Manning boys, bestselling authors Mark Plotkin and Michael Lewis (former CNN head), and Tony-award winning actress Mary Louise Wilson.

Newman School leases campus space to two commercial test-prep companies that offer classes throughout the school year and summer. More than 50 percent of Newman students attend an SAT-prep class. Ed Graf, Co-Director of College Counseling at Newman, observes that some students benefit from prep classes while others do not. Graf stated that while ACT/SAT scores are more important than colleges admit and less important than students and parents believe, they still play a large factor in college admission decisions. Graf also reports that a growing number of colleges are becoming test-score optional. Additionally, for colleges that review applicants with a 'holistic" approach, test scores still remain important, though to a somewhat lesser degree. But ACT/SAT scores figure largely in the consideration of students who apply to colleges that use an admission matrix of grade point average (GPA) and test scores.

Katie Rosenblum, director of marketing and public relations at Metairie Park Country Day School, says standardized college tests have gained importance due to a nationwide trend of 'inflated GPA scores." Country Day offers free SAT/PSAT prep classes twice a year with emphasis on introducing students to testing format, test-taking strategies and tips tailored for each test section. Following that, Country Day students practice taking actual past SAT tests. Like Louise S. McGehee School, Country Day also offers ACT Prep Classes in concert with the Princeton Review. Additionally, its rigorous curriculum of honors and advanced-placement courses that include history, English, calculus, physics, biology, psychology and macroeconomics provide some pretty effective calisthenics for all those little grey cells laboring away on the school campus.

Former Country Day student Hani Nakhoul nailed a perfect score during his junior year on the SAT. After graduation, Nakhoul taught calculus to students at Harvard University during his sophomore year while also teaching math in inner-city schools as a volunteer. Anne Meyer, class of 1996, left her job at NASA to become a member of the Federal Gulf Coast Recovery office and remains deeply involved in issues to procure levee and hurricane protection following Hurricane Katrina.

Tucked away neatly on Severn Avenue in Metairie, Archbishop Rummel High School for boys greatly expanded its test-prep program for the 2007-2008 school year. All junior-year students are required to take a half-credit course that covers one full semester consisting solely of ACT preparation. John Gabriel, assistant principal at Rummel, describes the course as a combination of test-taking strategies and remediation in the four areas targeted by ACT: math, English usage, science reasoning and reading. After each student takes a sample ACT test, each error receives an analysis. While the high school believes its test-prep program supplies essential assistance to prospective college attendees, it does not discourage any student from attending outside agencies. It also does not recommend one specific outside agency over another.

2003 Rummel graduate Brian Schilling was named Outstanding Honors Junior for 2006 at Mississippi State University where he is working on a double major of mathematics and aerospace engineering.

'Parents have become much more savvy educational consumers," Gabriel says, adding that they now recognize statistical comparisons between ACT scores and graduates who qualify for TOPS scholarships. Schools that have high ACT/SAT scores among their students also usually have a larger number of students who qualify for TOPS scholarships.

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