College prep test scores for African American students in Calvert County increased dramatically this year, but the gap between scores among minority students and white students continues to confound area school officials.

New Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) results released this week showed that African American graduating seniors in Calvert County posted an average combined math and verbal score of 933, up 78 points from last year. School officials analyzing the new numbers at week's end voiced their pleasure with the jump, but noted that even with the increase there remains a 129-point difference between black and white students' scores.

In St. Mary's County, the average combined score among African American students decreased by 20 points to 851. That score was 170 points below the average posted by white students. Charles County's demographic breakdown of the SAT scores will not be released until Tuesday.

"Of course, we're concerned," said Michael L. Hewitt, chairman of the St. Mary's Board of Education. "I think it's something that needs to be dealt with. I think we have to commit staff, funding and resources to it."

Hispanics in St. Mary's County fared better. Among the 10 Hispanic students who took the exam, one fewer student than the previous year, the average score increased by 53 points to 1003.

But in each of the two counties that released demographic data, the pool of minority students taking the test was small, which experts say can result in large swings in scores from year to year.

"You can have a whole different group of kids and it can skew the scores," said Fred Moreno, director of public affairs at the College Board, which administers the SAT nationwide.

In Calvert County, 49 black students took the test, the same as last year. In St. Mary's County, 34 black students took the exam, three more than the previous year.

Christopher Jencks, a professor of social policy at Harvard University who has studied the achievement gap, said the fluctuations in scores among the minority groups in Calvert and St. Mary's does not necessarily indicate the start of a trend.

"If you saw that two or three years in a row, you'd say that someone is doing something right," he said.

Despite the gains, educators still remain at a loss to figure out a way to close the achievement gap between minority and nonminority students. Nationwide, there was a 199-point gap between African American and white students' SAT scores. In the numbers released last week, black students had a combined average of 856, while white students scored 1055.

All three Southern Maryland school systems have been studying the phenomenon. Last month, St. Mary's Student Achievement Task Force delivered a list of recommendations to the school board.

"The SAT report is just a validation for the need for concrete efforts on the part of the [school] system to do some things differently and creatively," said the Rev. Raymond Moore, pastor of St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church in St. Inigoes and a member of the task force.

Calvert school officials said they have been consulting with the NAACP and encouraging students, especially minorities, to take advanced courses.

"In order for a student to do well, they have to position themselves in their course loads," said Robert L. Gray, president of Calvert's school board. "You don't take . . . basket weaving 101 when you can take algebra."

Local school officials and parents pay close attention to SAT scores to gauge the quality of schools, although many educators caution against that.

Over the past five years, scores for African Americans have fluctuated, dropping some years and rising in others.

"There's been a lot of variation in the scores, which is not surprising considering the populations," said Jeff Walker, who tracks test scores for the Calvert public school system.