The average SAT score of Montgomery County public school graduates increased by eight points this year, as Montgomery joined Fairfax County among the very few large U.S. school systems to average more than 1100 on the college entrance test, according to results released yesterday.
The national SAT average remained at 1026 out of a possible 1600 -- the same as in 2003 -- with the average verbal score up one point and the average math score down one point. But several Washington area school systems recorded gains, including the District, the City of Falls Church and Anne Arundel, Arlington, Calvert, Charles, Howard and Stafford counties.
Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said his school system's increase, to 1102 this year from 1094 the year before, included gains by African American and Hispanic students with family incomes low enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies. The average score of African Americans in that category improved 17 points, to 854, he said.
The SAT, administered by the New York-based College Board, is taken by high school students applying to college. Next spring, the College Board will add a writing test to its math and verbal sections.
Many educators and testing experts warn against using SAT averages to measure the academic success of a school system because such factors as parental income and the percentage of students who choose to take the voluntary test often influence results. But Weast said that SAT participation rates in his district and some others in the Washington area have risen to high enough levels that they do provide an indication of how well schools are doing.
The College Board does not record the average SAT scores of individual school districts, but almost all districts the size of Fairfax (166,000 students) and Montgomery (140,000 students) have large urban areas that keep their average score well below 1100. Most districts above the 1100 mark are small, suburban and affluent, such as Falls Church, the only other Washington area district with an average score above 1100.
Fairfax County had the second-highest average, after Falls Church, in the region -- 1105 -- despite experiencing a five-point drop from last year, the result of a one-point gain in the verbal and a six-point drop in the math section of the test. Non-Hispanic white students in Fairfax earned an average score of 1139, a 10-point decline from last year. Scores among Hispanic students dropped 15 points to 983, and scores for black students decreased 18 points to 922. The average score among Asian students was 1100, compared with 1108 last year.
Brad Draeger, the county's chief academic officer, said the principal and other administrators in each Fairfax high school will examine minority students' scores and search for ways to make improvements.
"We had a big jump last year, and this is a minor downturn," Draeger said. "Fairfax County has been increasing the number of students in poverty and the number of students with English as a second language who take the test. For our scores to have been increasing all these years is a dramatic statement."
SAT scores often drop when participation rates increase, as new students taking the test usually are less prepared and from families in which no one has attended college, according to test experts. John Porter, principal of Alexandria's T.C. Williams, said a six percentage point increase in SAT test taking this year might explain why the school's average math score dropped 21 points and its average verbal score dropped 10 points -- for an average score of 957, its first decrease since 2000.
Montgomery, however, managed to raise its average score with more students -- 7,263 -- taking the test than ever before and a participation rate of 80.2 percent, far above the national rate of 48 percent. Weast said much of the county's gain came from a 33-point improvement by Asian American students and a 10-point gain by non-Hispanic white students.
The D.C. public schools also showed a substantial gain, up 14 points to 814. School system officials said their seniors improved six points on the mathematics section and eight points on the verbal section of the test.
"We're not really satisfied with where we are, but we've been struggling in the last several years to make even small gains. To make a 14-point gain, while the rest of the country stayed the same, is certainly a great step in the right direction," said Bill Caritj, assistant superintendent for assessment and educational accountability. He said the D.C. increase probably results from efforts to have more ninth- and 10th-graders take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test and using the results to determine which students need remedial help and which should be encouraged to enroll in honors or Advanced Placement courses.
Although scores at some of the city's most troubled high schools declined, other schools that historically have struggled made significant gains. Caritj cited Bell Multicultural High School, which enrolls a large number of foreign-born students and had a 33-point increase; Cardozo, where the average score climbed 38 points; and Wilson, which posted a 17-point gain.
The average in Arlington County increased six points this year, to 1085, the school system's highest score ever. Loudoun County graduating seniors raised their average score to 1059, five points higher than last year, with a 72.5 percent participation rate. Stafford County gained four points to average 1034. Falls Church's only high school, George Mason, jumped seven points to average 1143. And Prince William County dropped three points to average 1016.
In Maryland, Howard County's average score was 1097, up 1 point from a year ago. But Howard officials said they believe a more accurate score is 1094. That's partly because, for the first time, Howard -- like many other school systems -- did its own analysis to make sure the results included only students enrolled in public schools.
Anne Arundel County gained four points to average 1059, which school officials said was the highest in 11 years. Frederick County dropped one point to 1055.
The scores of Prince George's County seniors dropped six points to 881, including a two-point drop in math and a four-point drop in verbal. But county officials noted that the average score for Hispanic students climbed from 867 to 905.
Among Southern Maryland school systems, Charles County increased 18 points to average 1047. Calvert County graduating seniors gained nine points to average 1053, although their participation rate dropped from 60 percent to 54.3 percent. St. Mary's County scores dropped 16 points to average 1026.
Overall average scores, including those of private school students, for the District and Virginia were unchanged, with the District at 1026 and Virginia at 1024. Maryland's seniors gained two points to average 1026.
College Board officials had been concerned about a rising portion of students not disclosing their race, but a change in the online registration form reversed the trend. Nineteen percent didn't disclose their race, compared with 25 percent the year before.
Staff writers Christina A. Samuels, Debbi Wilgoren, Maria Glod, Ylan Q. Mui, Nancy Trejos, Joshua Partlow, Susan Kinzie, Rosalind S. Helderman, Susan DeFord and Linda Perlstein contributed to this report.