I'm frustrated because no one has written asking about the county's average SAT scores, which were released recently. So I'm simply going to have to take matters into my own hands and pretend someone wrote asking about them.

If ever there were an argument that we need a national standard with national assessments, the SAT is it. The nation waits breathlessly for the average scores so it can judge states, districts and ethnic groups, and anxious parents, politicians, newspapers and real estate agents look closely at them to see which high school is better than another.

People want and deserve to have some measure by which they can judge their schools and students against a national standard. The problem is that SATs are an absolutely lousy way to go about this. Even if the SATs give us some interesting information about individual students--and my opinion is they don't give a lot of useful information--they have absolutely no credibility or validity in measuring students in the aggregate. They were never designed as measures of schools, school systems or groups of students, and their promulgator, the College Board, has never claimed they were.

One of the reasons SAT scores are invalid as measures of schools is that the number and percentage of students taking the SAT changes every year. You can see how important this is if you think about a normal high school. Thirty years ago, only 10 percent of its students might have taken the SAT, and they were the students who were the most academically ambitious and the best prepared. They had been enrolled in the school's college preparatory track and wanted to attend a selective college. The other 90 percent of the students in the school may have been abysmally educated, but the school's average SAT score was quite high because only the best-prepared students took the test.

Today, in that same high school, somewhere around 70 percent of the students take the SAT. Maybe one-third of them are in a college preparatory track of classes. The rest are not, in part because the school has not recognized the college ambitions of many of its students. But even so, the high school is doing a better job of preparing more of its students for college than it did 30 years ago. The average SAT score of the college preparatory track kids is high, but the school's overall average SAT score is much lower than it was.

Is the school worse now than it was then?

It makes me very nervous when our only measure for a high school is its average SAT score. Every superintendent, principal and teacher in the country knows how to improve average SAT scores instantaneously--simply discourage lower-performing students from taking the test. And there are many unscrupulous educators who do just that. They haven't made their schools any better. They haven't helped a single student become a better-educated person. But they have improved the image of their schools because they have ensured that only a small, well-prepared group of students has taken the test. That shouldn't be what we want, but it is what we get when all we do is focus on averages.

We get a little better picture of a school when we see what percentage of students takes the test and whether, over the past five years, that percentage has increased or decreased.

Similarly, we need to look at that issue for groups of students. Recently there has been a lot of hand-wringing over the fact that the average score of Latino students in Montgomery County dropped by 20 points over the last two years. And yet I have not seen anyone laud the fact that the percentage of the county's Latino students taking the SAT rose from 37 percent to 45 percent in the same time, proving that the aspirations of many Latino students include attendance at a selective college. In the past, too many educators in Montgomery County have dismissed the ambitions of the county's Latino students as not including any college other than Montgomery College, which does not require SATs for admittance.

Having told you how unscrupulous principals raise SAT scores, I will now tell you how scrupulous, dedicated principals and teachers raise SAT scores. They expose their students to the most rigorous curriculum they can and make sure that the school's teachers keep deepening their knowledge of the subjects they teach. They badger and hector their students into taking the college preparatory classes and give them the support they need to learn as much as they can. Real educators encourage all their students to take the SAT--even at the cost of their school's average score.

And, because students and their parents are interested, I will tell them how to improve individual SAT scores. There are no real shortcuts (those SAT prep classes are of limited use), and there are no real secrets. To do well on the SATs, high school students should take four years of college preparatory math, English, science, history and foreign language. A math sequence that ends in at least pre-calculus, but preferably calculus, is the one that best ensures that students will do well on the SAT. Students should read a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction and look up words they don't know. Education in the arts certainly can't hurt, and there is a fair amount of evidence it helps.

Finally, students should take as many Advanced Placement classes as they can--not necessarily because they should be looking to place out of college courses, but because Advanced Placement classes have a rigorous curriculum with national assessments that ensure high standards. The College Board has pretty good research demonstrating that, even when students don't do particularly well on the AP courses or tests, taking the courses helps students improve their SAT scores.

Doing better on the SAT isn't rocket science. To steal from a presidential campaign slogan, and meaning no offense to anyone: It's the curriculum, stupid.

No Time for Sleep

Dear Homeroom:

As the parent of two now-graduated young adults who woke at dawn and our youngest, who is starting high school this month, I'd like to better understand how you believe sufficient sleep is realistic with the current high school start time of 7:35 a.m.

To have enough time to shower (we encourage daily cleanliness, and it helps wake the body), eat some semblance of breakfast (we're always being told how important a healthy breakfast is before school), dress (always a more civilized way to show up in class) and get transported to school (by foot or bus or car), even a highly motivated and efficient high school student can reasonably be expected to wake up no later than 6 a.m. My experience is that many need to wake up earlier to accomplish all of the above.

To allow about nine hours of sleep, as you suggest, the student would have to be asleep by 9 the night before. I'm not sure any parent (much less student) would view that as feasible. Not at all sarcastically, I ask if you have a way to make this realistic.

Even 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. is often not feasible when we also account for the other pieces of the high school puzzle we encourage for a full picture: "Well-rounded students should be in extracurricular activities." "Remember the minimum of 60 community service hours." "Take courses that are as challenging as possible, even when a large amount of homework is required." "A student who also spends time with his or her family is more stable and more successful later in life." "Physical activity each day is important for students' health." "Friendships and wholesome peer relationships are a key element of adolescent development." These messages and others are ones that also impact on a student's daily schedule, and that of their supportive parents.

As the saying goes, "This situation is nuts." More seriously and respectfully to the decision makers in all corners, the high school early start time dilemma needs an alternative creative solution, and fast. It's a priority . . . or should be.

Jane Jacobs

Potomac

I seem to be the only person in America who thinks 9 p.m. is a reasonable bedtime. I'm certainly the only one in my family who thinks it, so I guess that's not a good solution.

But it seems to me the problem you outline is much greater than the starting time of high schools. It has to do with whether we are expecting to do too much in too little time. I'm a big believer in high school kids being busy. For one thing, it makes them feel important to always be bustling around with stuff to do. But what you've outlined seems out of control. Does anyone else want to weigh in?

Correction

Last week I said that Montgomery County does not require students to take history or social studies past 10th grade. I meant to say American history. It does require that students take modern world history in 11th or 12th grade.

Homeroom is a forum for you. Send questions, opinion and issues you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St. Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or you can e-mail homeroom@washpost.com.