College prep test scores for Latino students in Montgomery County public schools dropped 22 points from last year, despite a seven-year campaign that stresses "Success for Every Student."

The drop-off, to an average score of 973 on the Scholastic Assessment Test, or SAT, comes at a time when the school district's overall average score, 1096, is at its highest point ever, surpassing the state average of 1014. Last year's national average was 1017. The average score for African American students in Montgomery is 922, up three points from last year.

The pattern for Latinos, despite an uptick in 1997 and 1998, has been downward, from a high of 1088 in 1988 to a low of 965 in 1996.

The scores pose the first real test of new School Superintendent Jerry Weast's drive to close achievement gaps for minority students. And in a meeting with Hispanic parents and community leaders last night, Montgomery school officials, while not explaining the drop, said it was untenable and cause for real concern.

"I apologize to you for the poor performance of our Hispanic students," Deputy Superintendent Steve Seleznow told the group. "It's unacceptable, and we need to work together to change it."

While Latino SAT scores dropped this year, scores for white students in the county jumped 12 points to 1149. Asian scores dropped three points from last year, to 1131.

National SAT scores are to be released to the public early next week. The Washington Post obtained countywide SAT data after being informed of last night's meeting by Latino activists.

Some activists initially expressed outrage. After the meeting, many said they were galvanized to put aside rivalries within the Hispanic community, which represents more than 20 countries, and take action.

"This is inexcusable," said Hector Lazo, a community activist struggling to get more Latino parents involved with their children's education. "They have to do something, because when our children apply for college, with poor performance, they're in bad shape."

The SAT is a key test that parents, teachers and the business community use to judge how schools are performing. Universities and colleges use the scores, in part, to determine admittance and financial aid.

"This shows the school system is very good with lip service, 'Success for Every Student.' But when it comes to delivery, they do not perform," said Edgar Gonzalez, former chairman of the district's advisory committee on minority education, who was not at the meeting. "Something has to be done, not at the Board of Education meeting with grandstanding, but in the classroom, in the school."

School officials agreed. Seleznow told Latino leaders that, effective immediately, high school teachers have been told to use the one period in each day reserved for "instructionally related activities" to work specifically with African American and Hispanic students to prepare them for the SAT, algebra and other achievement tests. After-school programs to provide special help for students will also be added.

Seleznow also said that if money to permit students to take the SAT is an issue, the county will pay.

An effort is also underway, Seleznow said, to train teachers and guidance counselors, many of whom began teaching in 1973 when the schools were 90 percent white, to better deal with multicultural classrooms, which now are 51 percent white.

Montgomery County has the highest percentage of Latino students who don't speak English in the state, and the majority were born in this country.

Fernando Cruz-Villalba, president of the Hispanic Alliance of Montgomery County, said his daughter's counselor at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School gave her applications to all the least-desirable colleges. "Because she had a Hispanic last name, the expectation of her was zilch," said Cruz-Villalba, but his daughter "was accepted to Wellesley and Amherst and Georgetown. . . . This is the turning point. I hope our $300,000 [a year] investment in this new superintendent lights a fire."

Elizabeth Jaramillo, president of Ninos Unidos for Montgomery County, said Latino parents are the key. Many items such as student handbooks, report cards and test materials are out of reach because they're not translated to Spanish, she said.

Uninformed parents may be part of the reason. Although more than 60 percent of the district's Latino students meet University of Maryland college entrance qualifications, only 45 percent, or 403, of all 12th-grade Hispanic students took the SAT in 1999. That's up from 38 percent in 1995, but it's still far behind their white and Asian counterparts, more than 80 percent of whom take the SAT in Montgomery County every year and score well over 1100.

"That's the worst indicator to me, not just the low achievement, but the very low participation rate," said Ana Sol Gutierrez, a former school board member who said she ran for the office 11 years ago after another worrisome drop in Latino SAT scores. "There are so many more Latinos who should be taking the SAT, and they are not."

Hispanic Scores Drop

Montgomery County Hispanic students' 1999 scores on the Scholastic Assessment Tests dropped 22 points from the previous year. Despite a two-year rise in Hispanics' average scores on the tests in 1997 and 1998, the latest numbers are part of a long-term and disturbing downward trend that county school officials say must improve.

Year Hispanic scores

1988 1,039

1989 1,024

1990 1,022

1991 1,024

1992 1,012

1993 1,007

1994 988

1995 982

1996 965

1997 993

1998 995

1999 973

NOTES: Hispanics can be any race. The maximum score on the SAT is 1600.

SOURCE: Montgomery county schools