St. Mary's County and Charles County public school students' average on the Scholastic Assessment Test dropped several points this year while Calvert County saw a slight increase, according to figures released this week.

St. Mary's average combined score dropped by 18 points, the largest drop in the Washington region, reversing the improvement the system had in its 1998 scores. The St. Mary's countywide average was 1006, compared with 1024 a year ago. In Charles County, the average combined score dropped 7 points to 989.

The results left both counties below national and state averages, which were 1016 and 1014, respectively, for the test taken by high school seniors during the 1998-1999 school year. Meanwhile, Calvert County's score increased 2 points to 1044, keeping it above state and national averages.

There was more good news for Calvert--the average combined score for African American students in Calvert rose 78 points, to 933.

School officials in Charles and St. Mary's were at a loss to explain the dip in scores from last year to now, other than to say they have programs in place that are aimed at higher achievement and that there are bound to be fluctuations from one year to the next.

Charles County Schools Superintendent James E. Richmond said he has already instituted programs to improve SAT scores, but that the results of the efforts won't begin to show up until next year.

"Many of the seniors whose scores are reported in these scores had already taken the test before the improvements were implemented," he said.

St. Mary's County Schools Superintendent Patricia M. Richardson said she did not see the decline as a trend because SAT scores had improved in previous years.

"Since we have had five years of continuous progress on the SATs . . . we do not feel that there is a major problem with our curriculum," she said. The county's combined score in 1998 was 1024, up 13 from the previous year.

This year, St. Mary's students' scores dropped 10 points in the math section to 504 and 8 points in the verbal section to 502. The number of St. Mary's high school graduates taking the exam increased slightly from 360 to 367.

The national math average was 511 and the national verbal average was 505. In Maryland, the average score for each section is 507.

Richardson said school officials would be examining whether there is enough SAT training for their students.

"One of the questions we need to address is: Are we providing our students with enough training on test-taking skills for different types of assessments?" she said.

Michael L. Hewitt, chairman of the county's Board of Education, said the drop was a passing interruption of the county's recent progress.

"It's a blip," he said. "Next year, we'll do better."

But he added, "I'm not going to say it's not something we're concerned about."

In Charles County, students' scores decreased by 3 points in the math section and 4 points in the verbal section. The percentage of high school seniors taking the test increased slightly from 49.7 percent last year to 49.9 percent this year.

Higher participation rates can sometimes result in lower SAT averages, as lower-performing students take the test, some experts say. Overall in Maryland, 65 percent of graduating seniors took the SAT exam.

Last fall, Charles school officials launched a test preparatory program for students at the county's five high schools. In their quest for higher SAT scores, school officials turned to the Scholastic Study Guide for SAT Success program, which is used by thousands of high schools nationwide.

By 2005, Charles County officials expect students' average scores to exceed the state average by 5 points. Richmond said that the school system would also have to offer stronger college counseling, more honors classes and better preparation in algebra, geometry, reading and foreign languages to improve the scores.

Richmond said he has no worries about students achieving that goal. "I know we're on the right track," he said.

In Calvert County, the average verbal score rose 3 points, to 527, while the average math score dropped 1 point, to 517. This year, 54 percent of the graduating class took the exam. The number of seniors taking the exam increased from 455 to 496.

Schools Superintendent James R. Hook said he was pleased with the increase. "I was hoping we'd come up more, but we've had a steady increase and we're pleased with it," he said. "We have a way to go."

Nationwide, African Americans' standardized test scores, which traditionally lag behind those of whites, have been making small gains. In Calvert the gain was significant, with the verbal score increasing 38 points to 472 and the math score rising 40 points to 461.

Some schools showed dramatic changes.

In St. Mary's, Leonardtown and Great Mills high schools recorded significant declines, while Chopticon High School's overall average rose 51 points to 1,025.

Students in Calvert High School increased their scores by seven points to 1,040.

In Charles County, Maurice J. McDonough High School's score rose 29 points to 1,040. Meanwhile, Thomas Stone High School's average score dropped 46 points to 960 and La Plata High School's score dropped 13 points to 1,016.

"Gee, we were so disappointed," said Jay Manning, principal of Thomas Stone. "That was a tough thing to learn. . . . Some of our kids are not prepared." Manning said he would beef up courses such as algebra to get the students ready for next year's exam.

Southern Maryland SAT Scores

County averages dropped in Charles and St. Mary's counties, while Calvert scores held steady. Results of each area public high school are below.

Calvert County

1998-1999 SAT Averages

School No. Tested/Verbal/Math/Total

Calvert 137/527/513/1040

Northern 206/519/516/1035

Patuxent 153/538/523/1061

COUNTY 496/527/517/1044

1997-1998 SAT Averages

School No. Tested/Verbal/Math/Total

Calvert 212/521/512/1033

Northern 243/526/524/1050

Patuxent N/A(1)

COUNTY 455/524/518/1042

Charles County

1998-1999 SAT Averages

School No. Tested/Verbal/Math/Total

Lackey 73/472/488/960

La Plata 137/505/511/1016

McDonough 122/519/521/1040

Thomas Stone 125/476/484/960

Westlake 196/480/489/969

COUNTY 653/491/498/989

1997-1998 SAT Averages

School No. Tested/Verbal/Math/Total

Lackey 78/481/481/962

La Plata 120/508/521/1029

McDonough 125/503/508/1011

Thomas Stone 111/503/503/1006

Westlake 168/482/488/970

COUNTY 602/495/501/996

St. Mary's County

1998-1999 SAT Averages

School No. Tested/Verbal/Math/Total

Chopticon 89/507/518/1025

Great Mills 108/502/498/1000

Leonardtown 170/499/501/1000

COUNTY 367/502/504/1006

1997-1998 SAT Averages

School No. Tested/Verbal/Math/Total

Chopticon 110/480/494/974

Great Mills 101/527/515/1042

Leonardtown 149/522/528/1050

COUNTY 360/510/514/1024

MARYLAND

1998-1999 SAT Averages

No. Tested/Verbal/Math/Total

35,819/507/507/1014

1997-1998 SAT Averages

No. Tested/Verbal/Math/Total

34,244/506/508/1014

NATION

1998-1999 SAT Averages

No. Tested/Verbal/Math/Total

1,220,130/505/511/1016

1997-1998 SAT Averages

No. Tested/Verbal/Math/Total

1,172,779/505/512/1017

(1)No senior class at Patuxent High School in 1997-98.