Students in Washington have made some of the largest gains in the country on college entrance examinations during the last three years, U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett said yesterday, but an analysis of test data shows that all of the improvement is accounted for by the city's private schools.

For District of Columbia public schools the average score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test declined by 3 points from 1982 to 1985, the years Bennett used in his comparison, although it is still above the low point reached in the late 1970s.

As in previous years, the report said the District had the highest drop-out rate in the nation, 44.8 percent. The rate was calculated from the proportion of ninth graders who graduate four years later with an adjustment for migration, although some officials dispute the rate and say it does not take into account students who left school because they moved out of the District.

For D.C. private schools, whose students account for 57 percent of those taking the test here, the combined average score on the reading and mathematics parts of the examination climbed over three years from 919 to 959, a 40-point gain. The public school average dropped from 697 to 694, while the average for all D.C. students, both public and private, rose from 821 to 844, a 23-point gain. Bennett said the gain was greater than that in any state except South Carolina.

About 15 percent of all D.C. students are enrolled in private schools, according to D.C. Board of Education statistics, but these schools account for about 30 percent of the city's high school graduates.

For Maryland and Virginia, the report showed similar gains in SAT scores, with the averages rising from 889 to 910 in Maryland and from 888 to 908 in Virginia. The dropout rate also declined in both states, with Maryland's rate falling to 22.2 percent and Virginia's to 25.3 percent.

The SAT, the nation's most widely used college entrance exam, is taken each year by almost 1 million high school seniors, or about 37 percent of the nationwide graduating class. According to 1982 figures, about one-third of D.C. public school graduates take the exam, while almost 95 percent of those attending private schools do so.

A perfect score on the two-hour multiple-choice exam is 1600 points -- 800 in verbal and 800 in math; the combined minimum is 400.

The national average on the test has risen 16 points since its low point in 1980 and 1981, including a rise from 893 to 906 since 1983. The SAT scores had fallen by 90 points from their peak in the early 1960s.

Bennett said yesterday there had also been similar improvement recently on the nation's other major college entrance exam, conducted by the American College Testing program and taken mostly by students in the Midwest and South.

Bennett said dropout rates had also declined since 1982 in 39 states, indicating that the "dramatic turnaround" in academic performance and standards has not pushed more students out of school. By contrast, during the previous decade, while test scores were declining, the dropout rate nationwide increased.

"Some have said that we can't have both excellence and equity in our schools," Bennett declared, "but the [new report] shows otherwise. It proves that contrary to the usual thinking, test scores can be increased and dropout rates decreased at the same time . . . ."

Bennett said the stiffening of academic requirements, which spread rapidly after the 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence, "has clearly helped our poor and minority students."

The new report on state-by-state comparisons also shows major increases since 1982 in per pupil spending and teachers' salaries and a decline in average class size. But Bennett and the Education Department researchers who compiled the data said that, like data in previous reports, the new figures show no signficant relationship between achievement and school resources.

"I would be the last person to discourage states from increasing their spending [on education]," Bennett said. "But it is far more important how you spend your money and how you deploy it than how much you spend."

The massive compilation of data, displayed on a large wall chart, is the third report on state-by-state comparisons issued by the Education Department. The well publicized comparisons, started by former Education secretary Terrel H. Bell, have drawn criticism from many state and testing organization officals, particularly because the proportion of students taking college entrance exams varies considerably among states.

Bennett remarked yesterday that public comparisons are "a consternation-causing activity, but it is essential to tell the American people what we know." He said the data is "reliable" even though incomplete. He said he welcomed a plan adopted last fall by the Council of Chief State School Officers, composed of state school superintendents, to develop a nationwide test to be taken by a cross section of students in every state.

An aide said Bennett did not realize that SAT scores in D.C. public schools had not risen because the state-by-state reports issued by the College Board, which sponsors the exam, do not show separate data for public and private schools.

However, because D.C. has only one public school system, the results for private schools here could be calculated from available data.

Nationwide, 19 percent of students taking the SAT attend private schools. For 1984, the last year for which a national comparison is available, private schools averaged 14 points higher than public schools on the verbal part of the exam, but the two were tied in math. DISTRICT SAT SCORES SAT average 1982 1985 Change 1982 1985 Number tested 1982 1985 % of Total 1982 % of Total 1985

District (total) 821 844 +23 3,266 3,035 100 100

District (public) 697 694 -3 1,444 1,316 44.2 43.4

District (private) 919 959 +40 1,822 1,719 55.8 56.6

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education and the College Board. AREA EDUCATIONAL PERFORMANCE SAT / Rank* / Pct. Tested / Change / Grads** / U.S. Rank District

1982 821 21 50.4 56.9% 51

1985 844 19 53.4 +23 55.2% 51 Maryland

1982 889 9 50.3 74.8% 19

1985 910 6 51.3 +21 77.8% 13 Virginia

1982 888 11 51.0 73.8% 23

1985 908 7 53.6 +20 74.7% 25 U.S.

1982 893 69.7%

1985 906 +13 70.9%

*Rank among 22 states and the District.

**Percent of 9th graders who graduate from high school four years later; adjusted for migration and unclassified handicapped students; figures for 1982, 1984.

NOTE: SAT scores include public and private school students. Other data for public schools only.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education EDUCATION STATISTICS

SAT OR ACT SCORES AND RANK, GRADUATION RATE AND RANK, PUPIL/TEACHER RATIO AND RANK, AND SPENDING PER PUPIL AND RANK Scores* 1985 / Rank / Grads** 1984 / Rank / Ratio 1985 / Spend 1984 / Rank State

Alabama 17.6 20 62.1 49 19.4 40 $2,055 50 Alaska 17.6 20 74.7 25 17.1 23 $8,627 1 Arizona 18.7 16 64.6 41 19.7 43 $2,751 35 Arkansas 17.4 25 75.2 22 18.0 29 $2,235 45 California 904 9 63.2 44 23.3 50 $2,963 28 Colorado 19.7 4 75.4 21 18.9 36 $3,373 18 Connecticut 915 5 79.1 11 14.4 3 $4,023 6 Delaware 918 4 71.1 34 16.5 17 $3,849 9 D.C. 844 19 55.2 51 15.2 6 $4,783 3 Florida 884 15 62.2 47 17.7 25 $2,932 29 Georgia 837 20 63.1 45 18.9 36 $2,352 42 Hawaii 877 17 73.2 30 23.2 49 $3,334 19 Idaho 18.8 14 75.8 20 20.5 45 $2,181 47 Illinois 18.9 11 74.5 27 18.0 29 $3,298 20 Indiana 875 18 77.0 17 19.0 38 $2,725 37 Iowa 20.3 1 86.0 4 15.4 11 $3,274 22 Kansas 19.1 10 81.7 9 15.4 11 $3,284 21 Kentucky 17.9 19 68.4 39 19.6 42 $2,311 43 Louisiana 16.5 27 56.7 50 19.0 38 $2,670 41 Maine 898 11 77.2 15 16.3 15 $2,700 38 Maryland 910 6 77.8 13 18.0 29 $3,858 8 Massachusetts 906 8 74.3 28 15.2 6 $3,595 14 Michigan 18.9 11 72.2 33 21.0 48 $3,605 12 Minnesota 20.2 3 89.3 1 17.5 24 $3,395 17 Mississippi 15.5 28 62.4 46 18.4 33 $2,080 49 Missouri 18.8 14 76.2 18 16.8 18 $2,748 36 Montana 19.5 6 82.1 8 16.1 14 $3,604 13 Nebraska 19.7 4 86.3 2 15.0 5 $3,221 23 Nevada 18.5 17 66.5 40 20.2 44 $2,690 39 New Hamp. 939 1 75.2 22 15.3 8 $2,980 27 New Jersey 889 14 77.7 14 15.3 8 $4,483 5 New Mexico 17.5 23 71.0 35 18.7 35 $2,928 30 New York 900 10 62.2 47 17.8 26 $5,117 2 North Carolina 833 21 69.3 37 19.4 40 $2,303 44 North Dakota 18.1 18 86.3 2 16.3 15 $3,028 25 Ohio 19.2 9 80.0 10 18.4 33 $2,982 26 Oklahoma 17.5 23 73.1 31 16.9 21 $2,880 31 Oregon 928 2 73.9 29 18.3 32 $3,677 10 Pennsylvania 893 13 77.2 15 16.8 18 $3,648 11 Rhode Island 895 12 68.7 38 15.3 8 $3,938 7 South Carolina 815 22 64.5 43 17.9 28 $2,183 46 South Dakota 19.3 8 85.5 5 14.4 3 $2,685 40 Tennessee 17.6 20 70.5 36 20.6 46 $2,100 48 Texas 878 16 64.6 41 17.8 26 $2,784 34 Utah 18.9 11 78.7 12 24.1 51 $2,053 51 Vermont 919 3 83.1 7 14.2 2 $3,147 24 Virginia 908 7 74.7 25 16.8 18 $2,878 33 Washington *** *** 75.1 24 20.8 47 $3,465 16 West Virginia 17.4 25 73.1 31 16.0 13 $2,879 32 Wisconsin 20.3 1 84.5 6 16.9 21 $3,513 15 Wyoming 19.4 7 76.0 19 12.6 1 $4,523 4

*SAT scores are three-digit numbers; ACT scores are two-digit numbers with a decimal point. Ranks are given among 22 states for the SAT and among 28 states for the ACT.

**Percentage of 9th graders who graduate from high school four years later.

***Less than 20 percent of high school students took either test.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education