The 2012 SAT scores come after a decade of efforts to raise test scores under the No Child Left Behind law, the federal education initiative crafted by President George W. Bush. Critics say the law failed to address the barriers faced by many test takers.
“Some kids are coming to school hungry, some without the health care they need, without the vocabulary that middle-class kids come to school with, even in kindergarten,” said Helen F. Ladd, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University.
“If we really want to do something to close achievement gaps and raise test scores, we have to stop putting our heads in the sand and start addressing this issue,” she said.
As a way to better prepare high school graduates for college or careers, 45 states and the District of Columbia are planning to implement common academic standards over the next two years. Among other things, the new standards are designed to better teach reading comprehension and critical thinking.
In the Washington region, Montgomery County students posted an average combined score of 1651, or 14 points higher than graduates the year before. That was 184 points higher than the statewide average and 153 points higher than the national average.
In Fairfax County, students made modest gains, posting an average total score of 1659, up five points from a year earlier.
In the District, students in public schools scored an average of 1184, nearly 300 points below the national average.
In Prince George’s County, the average SAT score dropped eight points, to 1274. Reading scores fell two points; math dipped two points; and writing dropped four points.
In Arlington County, the average score rose 14 points from 2011, to 1641. There were significant gains among black and Hispanic students, although their average scores continued to lag those of white and Asian students.
Scores in Prince William County public schools stayed flat at 1490, with reading up a point but math down a point and writing staying the same.
Alexandria City Schools scores increased from the year before but remained below state and national averages. In a district that is about 40 percent black, 30 percent Latino and 28 percent white, “when I hear that 65 percent of our seniors took the SATs last year, that’s great news,” Superintendent Morton Sherman said.
In Loudoun County, test takers averaged 1590, down two points from 2011.
Montgomery County School Superintendent Joshua Starr said his district was able to set a record through a combination of practices, such as early childhood education and analyzing data to make specific systemwide improvements.
“I don’t want people to think there is simply one program or initiative or a silver bullet,” said Starr, who is a vocal critic of No Child Left Behind and other recent education policies such as the Obama administration’s Race to the Top. “It’s really a holistic approach.”
African American and Hispanic students from Montgomery County made gains on the SAT this year, outperforming their peers nationwide. African American graduates earned a combined score of 1389 on the SAT, up seven points from the prior year, while scores for Hispanic students rose six points, for a combined score of 1483.
Still, Starr said there were stubborn differences in participation and performance along racial and ethnic lines. “There are some persistent gaps and we have to make sure we have to address those,” he said.
The Washington area had some of the higher test-taking rates in the nation.
Only five states had a higher percentage of test takers than the District, where 83 percent of public- and private-school seniors took the SAT. Meanwhile, 74 percent of Maryland seniors and 72 percent of Virginia seniors sat for the exam.
Lynh Bui, T. Rees Shapiro, Susan Svrluga and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.