Although T.C. Williams High School seniors achieved the school's highest score in 20 years on the math section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the school's overall SAT scores remained the lowest in the region again this year. The scores, however, did not drop as much as those in other Northern Virginia schools.

Of T.C. Williams's 500 seniors, 304 took the test this year, averaging 491 on the math section, a five-point increase from last year, and 435 in the verbal section, a seven-point decrease.

In Arlington this year, the verbal score average was 445 and the math average was 507. Scores for Fairfax County students were 457 verbal and 519 for math.

According to Jim Akin, executive assistant to the superintendent, Alexandria's SAT scores are lower than the rest of the region's because of the city's larger minority and foreign student population.

"What you're looking at is socioeconomic patterns," Akin said. "The socioeconomic and educational level of the students is more diverse here in Alexandria than in other areas. We have a larger percentage of minorities here."

Of the T.C. seniors who took the SAT, 51 percent were white, 27 percent black, 12 percent Asian American, 6 percent Hispanic and 1 percent American Indian.

Akin also cited the established pattern, both nationally and locally, of a direct link between student performance and parental income and education levels.

"Whether the student's parents went to college, what language patterns they use in the home and in the neighborhood, and if books are available to them -- these things all influence how well the student will do," he said.

As nationally, Alexandria students whose parents attended college achieved higher scores than those whose parents had fewer years of schooling. Fifty-seven percent of T.C. test-takers said their parents have college degrees.

Alexandria students from families with an annual income of $70,000 or more scored the highest, averaging 536 verbal and 564 math. Students in families with an income of less than $10,000 a year scored the lowest: 342 verbal and 452 math.

Nationally, the average verbal score declined for the fourth consecutive year and the average math score remained at 476 for the fourth straight year.

In Virginia this year, verbal scores dipped five points to 425 and math scores dipped two points to 470. Both sections of the multiple-choice test are scored on a scale of 200 to 800.

The T.C. seniors' average math score of 491 is 15 points above the national average and 21 above the Virginia average.

"We're pleased about the rise in math," Akin said. "But I don't take the SAT too seriously. It is not an indicator of educational quality."

Akin said the reason SAT scores are emphasized so strongly is that colleges and universities judge applicants heavily on the scores.