Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

More than half the college-bound students in the Class of 2012 may be unprepared for four-year colleges this fall, claims a recent report by the nonprofit College Board.

The College Board, which administers the SAT college admissions test, predicts 57 percent of last spring's graduating high school seniors might struggle with college-level work and are less likely to finish their degrees.

Mother Lode students have done fairly well on the SAT over the past two years. But school administrators say the picture is more complicated, since it's difficult to track students and their actual success in college after they graduate high school.

Meanwhile, local schools are trying to boost the number of students taking college preparatory courses and admissions tests in the first place.

In spring 2012, 62 college-bound seniors at Summerville Union High School District completed the SAT test, originally called the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The approximately four-hour-long exam, taken by juniors and seniors, measures ability in reading, writing and math.

The average Summerville SAT scores this spring were 515 in reading, 514 in math, and 502 in writing, representing a total score of 1531 out of a possible 2400. That's higher than the national average but slightly below the SAT's college readiness benchmark of 1550.

The College Board and the SAT say the college readiness benchmark is associated with better grades in college and greater likelihood of staying a second year.

However, they caution that the measure is designed to analyze groups of students and should never be used to discourage an individual from going to college.

Most college admissions offices use SAT or ACT scores as a factor in their decision to admit a student, though they consider a range of other factors too. The average freshman at University of California, Berkeley last year had earned a combined score of 2073, according to the school's website.

"Everybody always wants (scores) to be better," said Summerville High Superintendent John Keiter. "But we have to keep our main thing the main thing. While these tests are important, they're not the ultimate goal."

The biggest focus for Summerville teachers is making sure they cover the California state standards in their classes, Keiter explained.

About 40 percent of seniors at Summerville High and the Connections Visual and Performing Arts Academy took the SAT in 2011-12.

As the percentage of seniors taking the SAT test rises, average scores tend to go down, according to Jim Hull, a senior policy analyst with the National School Boards Association.

At Bret Harte Union High School District, the average SAT scores in 2011 - the most recent year with available data - were 548 in reading, 550 in math and 539 in writing. The average combined score was well above the SAT's college readiness benchmark.

About 43 percent of Bret Harte High seniors took the test that year.

For Calaveras High School students, the average SAT scores in 2011 were slightly lower: 517 in reading, 527 in math and 513 in writing. Just under 33 percent of seniors sat for the test.

At Sonora Union High School District, 71 seniors - about 30 percent of those enrolled - took the SAT in 2010-11. Their average scores were 525 in math, 547 in reading and 533 in writing, making the combined score above the college readiness benchmark. The school doesn't yet have average scores for 2012.

Sonora High Principal Todd Dearden said he didn't consider SAT scores a "key indicator."However, the school's average SAT scores have been steadily increasing over the past several years.

Some educators say that compared with other data, the usefulness of the SAT college readiness benchmark is limited.

"A better indicator would be to see how many kids are going to college and being successful, but it's really hard data for a school to keep track of," said Calaveras County Superintendent of Schools Kathy Northington.

About a quarter of Sonora High graduates end up going to a community or junior college, typically Columbia College, said the high school's Assistant Principal Pat Chabot. Half those students later transfer to four-year schools.

Another 15 to 20 percent of Sonora High students go directly to four-year universities such as UC and CSU schools.

Sonora High's career center does a survey of the previous year's graduates every spring and is able to reach most of them, Chabot said.

Summerville High is trying to keep similar statistics. In the past, an outside data service reported on more graduates than Summerville High really had.

The school would like to "scrub up" the data and get a better picture of where former students are, Keiter said.

SAT scores are ultimately just one part of the equation, he added.

"I think if you sat down and talked with (a teacher) at length, they would express concern about the testing, especially the one-shot kind of testing," Keiter explained. "We're more in favor of a sustained performance from our kids."