Lauren LiPuma, of Weymouth Township, knew she wanted to go to Richard Stockton College. Her brother had attended and loved it, and the college offered a speech therapy program.

Her SAT scores were good, but she still took the test three times, qualifying for a Stockton scholarship that pays her tuition. Now a sophomore at Stockton, she still remembers the stress.

“Every high school senior worries about the SAT,” she said.

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There’s even more to worry about today. As more students turn to state colleges for an affordable college degree, the average SAT scores have inched upward, bumping out good students because there’s just no room.

Students in southern New Jersey face some of the stiffest competition. The average SAT scores for students admitted to the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and Rowan University are among the highest of the state’s public colleges, at 1130 and 1150 in fall 2008 for the math and verbal combined.

Atlantic Cape Community College accepts all students, but a combined SAT score of at least 1070 exempts them from taking a placement test to see if they need remedial courses.

Based on data included in the 2009 state school report cards, most area high school students taking the SAT do not meet that standard.

Only 51 of 384 public high schools in the state had students with an average SAT score of 1130 or above. Only 90 schools had the average score of 1070 that ACCC uses to indicate a student’s readiness for college-level work.

‘Colleges find it useful’

Based on college admissions data, most applicants admitted to Rowan and Stockton were in the top 20 to 25 percent of their high school graduating class.

There is, of course, more to getting into college than the SAT. And the overall SAT scores of admitted students span a range of as much as 100 points for each section. But admissions officers still use it as an important tool to compare thousands of applicants.

“Colleges find it useful because all students take the same test,” said Kaiser Fung, a business statistician and author of “Numbers Rule Your World,” who has examined use of the SAT.

An applicant’s transcript showing the grades earned in college prep classes is still the most important factor, according to the 2009 survey of colleges by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

But 54 percent of respondents also said that test scores were considerably important, with 64 percent of public colleges ranking test scores as very important. The larger the college, the more it relied on test scores.

Some local college presidents said the increased number of applicants has allowed them to be more selective in whom they accept. But they still try to look at the whole student.

“We try to be careful not to become over-reliant on one factor,” Rowan President Donald Farish said. “Who is likely to be successful is not based on one test.”

Still, he is concerned that students who are on the borderline, and might have been accepted five years ago, are now being rejected. Freshmen enrollment increased by

10 percent this year, but many qualified students are still not getting in.

A financial aid tool

Ocean City High School guidance director Erik Ortolf has seen the impact firsthand.

“I’ve seen students who want to be teachers and they can’t get into Rowan’s education program as a freshman anymore,” he said. “More of the high-end students are staying in state, and that’s pushing out the middle kids, which makes them more anxious.”

He said the testing pressure in high school is immense, and helping students prepare just adds to the process.

Ocean City gives all freshmen the PSSS, or Preliminary SAT Scoring Service, so they can gauge their strengths and weaknesses. About 40 percent of sophomores take the PSAT, and then in junior and senior year, the SAT, as many times as they think necessary to impress college admissions officials. Seventy-four percent of Ocean City’s 2009 graduating class took the SAT.

Ortolf said the SAT is almost more important today as a financial aid tool. Many colleges offer scholarships based on SAT scores.

“That’s what we emphasize when we recommend that students take the test again,” Ortolf said.

Stockton freshman Steve Heerema, of West Milford, Passaic County, admitted that the college was actually his fifth choice and the only state college he applied to. But the full-tuition scholarship he earned from his SAT score made the decision for him. Still, he’s very happy at the college.

“It wasn’t my first choice, but it was the best choice, hands down,” the speech therapy major said.

Competition rising

The average SAT score of students at the MATES Academy (Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science) at the Ocean County Vocational Technical School was 1232, and the Atlantic County Institute of Technology academy programs 1027, which are among the highest in the area. Bergen Academy students had the highest average SAT scores in the state, at 1405. The top 10 high-scoring schools were all academy programs at vocational high schools.

Those schools are selective, and students attending them are often already focused on college and careers. Only about 20 percent of the seniors at ACIT took the SAT, but some students also take courses at Atlantic Cape Community College in their senior year, and plan to get an associate degree there first.

“We offer SAT tutoring after school,” ACIT academy guidance counselor Jordan Previti said. “But I think students in these programs are also more willing to do the work because they chose to come here. It’s pretty intensive.”

Statewide, students in wealthier districts continue to score higher than those in poor and urban districts. More minority students are taking the SAT, but still do not score as well. Part of the gap may be attributable to the academic preparation they receive in school. The state Department of Education has been promoting a college preparatory level program for all students as part of state high school reform efforts.

Fung said SAT prep programs can be effective in helping students improve their scores.

“Test-taking is a trainable skill,” he said. “It’s a question of learning how to deal with a set of questions within a time limit.”

Still, as long as the number of college applications continues to rise faster than state colleges’ ability to add more students, the process will continue to be competitive.

“It’s really not that we are being that much more selective,” Stockton President Herman J. Saatkamp Jr. said. “But we got 4,600 applications for 900 freshman positions this fall. We increased the size of the freshman class, and the average SAT scores still went up.”

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