D.C. high school students will be able to take SAT prep classes as part of the Saturday remedial and enrichment classes the school system will offer later this school year.

Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who discussed the new classes when SAT scores were released last week, said she hoped the courses and an increased focus on math across the school system will help boost scores on the important college entrance exam.

D.C. public school seniors who took the Scholastic Assessment Test last year averaged a combined score of 813 out of a possible 1600, three points higher than the previous year but still by far the lowest in the region.

Scores on the verbal portion of the exam rose six points, from 410 to 416. Math scores dropped three points, from 400 to 397. The College Board, which administers the exam, announced results for all 1999 high school graduates.

"It's progress, that's the main thing," Ackerman said. "Reading is where we've put a lot of emphasis these last two years. This year the focus will be on both math and reading."

School officials have not yet compiled school-by-school average scores, or reported the average scores of different ethnic groups within the system, which are considered an important measure of whether students of all backgrounds are afforded equal opportunities.

Spokeswoman Denise Tann said those results--which some area school systems compiled immediately after receiving district-wide data from the College Board late last month--should be available in a few weeks.

A total of 1,418 students from the school system--or 55 percent of high school seniors--took the SAT last school year. This was 103 fewer students than took the exam the previous year, a decline that parallels a decrease in school system enrollment and a small but growing exodus of students to public charter schools.

By comparison, the College Board said that 1,466 students attending private, religious or charter schools in the District, or who are schooled at home or through correspondence courses, took the exam--with most scoring much higher than the vast majority of youngsters in the public school system.

Students attending independent private schools scored a combined average of 1194 points on the math and verbal tests, 11 points higher than last year. Students at religious schools averaged 1177 points, a seven-point jump.

Scores for the 211 students who are home-schooled or from charter schools were not reported.

The average score for all D.C. students was 972, an eight-point increase from the previous year. Citywide scores for African American students increased eight points, to 831, while scores for students of Asian descent rose six points to 1028. Scores for white students fell five points, to 1240--still more than 200 points higher than the national average.

Latino high school seniors taking the test saw a disturbing decline in their already low average scores, from 899 to 886. Community leaders who work with Latino students decried what they called a lack of focus on those youngsters within the school system, and said the drop in scores reflected that neglect.

"It's alarming and distressing and . . . really appalling," said Lori Kaplan, executive director of the Latino American Youth Center, which among other things helps students of Hispanic descent apply to college.

"No matter how you slice it, those scores are not going to open the doors to the kind of opportunities we want our young people to have."

Kaplan applauded recent promises by school officials in Montgomery County to work with Latino students to reverse a similar drop in SAT scores, but said she has seen no such initiative from D.C. officials.

"To date, I have not felt that the current administration is really highlighting in any kind of way the special needs of language-minority kids," she said.

Ralph Neal, assistant superintendent for senior high schools, said a college-access program being launched this year at six high schools should help more students from all backgrounds register for the SAT and prepare for the exam.

The program provides one adviser at each school to work with students on all aspects of college admissions, including SAT preparations and securing waivers for poor students who cannot pay to take the exam.

The advisers, Neal said, will encourage students to meet the mid-September deadline to register for the exam, which is given in October, so that they will still have time to retake the test later in the year if they are dissatisfied with their scores.

The program will start at three schools with large language-minority populations--Bell Multicultural, Cardozo and Roosevelt--as well as at Anacostia, Dunbar and Woodson. It is supposed to be extended to all 17 D.C. high schools next school year.

The SAT prep classes are a separate initiative, which will be added to the Saturday remedial classes Ackerman began in January to boost scores on the Stanford 9 reading and math achievement tests.

Ackerman said the classes will likely be offered at several high schools across the city, and be open to all interested students.