Montgomery County students graduating from public high schools this year increased their average SAT score by eight points, joining Fairfax County among the very few large districts to average more than 1100 on the college entrance test, according to College Board figures released today.
The D.C. schools also showed a substantial gain, up 14 points to 814. D.C. officials said their seniors improved six points on the mathematics section and eight points on the verbal section of the test.
The national SAT average remained at 1026, the same as in 2003, with the average verbal score up one point and the average math score down one point. Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said his district's increase included gains by African American and Hispanic students with family incomes low enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies. African American seniors in that category improved 17 points to 854 and Hispanic seniors in the group improved six points to 837.
Weast said a strong emphasis by high school principals and teachers on meeting higher state learning standards and enrolling in college-level courses helped raise the SAT scores. "People want good teachers, good principals and high standards, and that is what we are delivering," Weast said.
Many educators and testing experts, including College Board officials, warn against using SAT averages to measure the academic success of school districts, since the average scores are closely tied to average parental income and what percentage of students choose to take the voluntary tests in order to qualify for college. But politicians, school superintendents and media outlets continue to use the tests results that way, and Weast said that SAT participation rates in his and other local districts have risen so high that they do provide some indication of how well schools are doing.
SAT scores often drop when participation rates increase, because the new students taking the test are usually less prepared and from families where no one had ever attended college before. John Porter, principal of Alexandria's single high school, T.C. Williams, said a six percentage point increase in SAT test taking this year may explain why his school's average math score dropped 21 points and its average verbal score dropped 10 points.
Montgomery County, 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 eight-point gain to an average of 1102 came from a 33-point improvement by Asian American students to 1160 and a 10-point gain by non-Hispanic white students to 1163. African Americans students as a group, including those who did not qualify for lunch subsidies, remained steady at 917 and Hispanic students overall dropped one point to 944.
Fairfax County still had the highest average in the region, 1105, despite experiencing a five-point drop from last year, the result of a one-point gain in math and a six-point drop in the verbal section of the test.
Arlington County seniors gained six points to 1085, their highest score ever.
Loudoun County seniors raised their average score to 1059, five points higher than last year, with a 72.5 percent participation rate.
In Maryland, Howard County scores gained a point, to 1097, but that was the district's all-time high, officials said.
In the southern Maryland districts, Charles County increased 18 points to 1047, despite an 80-point drop in scores at Lackey High School. La Plata High seniors averaged 1108 and Thomas Stone seniors averaged 1107.
Calvert County seniors gained nine points, to 1053, although their participation rate dropped from 60 percent to 54.3 percent. St. Mary's County seniors dropped 16 points to 1026, including a 38-point drop at Great Mills High School. (Calvert officials, who earlier in the day said their average score had dropped, said they incorrectly reported last year's SAT average as 1058 when it was actually 1044.)
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.
Fairfax County officials stressed that the county's five-point dip followed several years of steadily increasing scores that hit a high point last year with a combined average score of 1110.
"We had a big jump last year and this is a minor downturn," said Brad Draeger, Fairfax County's chief academic officer. "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."
But Fairfax's scores also highlighted a gap in minority achievement. Although the system's black and Hispanic students outperformed their counterparts in Virginia and nationwide, their scores lagged below those of their white classmates.
White students in Fairfax earned an average score of 1139, a 10-point decline from last year. But 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 to 1108 last year.
Draeger said the principal and other administrators in each high school will examine the scores of minority students and search for ways to improve each group's overall performance. "Every school will look at these scores individually and see how we can get them up," Draeger said
College Board officials said they were happy to see a drop from 25 percent to 19 percent in the portion of students nationally who declined to reveal their ethnicity. Some experts said a rise in the number of test takers not disclosing their race in recent years threatened their ability to analyze minority progress on the tests, but many more test takers began to give their race after the College Board changed its online registration process this year to keep them from skipping that question altogether.
Next year's SAT results report will be the last using the old scoring system of 1600 total points. Seniors graduating in 2006 will have taken a new test with a writing section that brings the total to 2400 points. But Wayne Camara, College Board vice president for research and psychometrics, said the non-profit organization would still release an annual average based on the old system to allow comparisons to previous years.