Anne Arundel County school officials say that a new emphasis on test preparation helped give a healthy boost to the SAT scores of the district's high school seniors.

A two-year effort to expose students on a regular basis to the SAT's style of questioning paid off last week when the release of 1999 results showed Arundel students scoring six points higher on the verbal section than the previous year.

Even with a one-point dip in math scores, Anne Arundel's five-point net improvement was among the most impressive gains in the Washington area this year.

Scores have risen steadily over the last five years, from 1,025 on a 1,600-point scale in 1994 to 1,051 this year. The national average this year was 1,016.

Though Arundel still experiences the gap in minority scores seen across the country, its African American students saw a similar point gain this year, from 893 to 898.

About 53 percent of the county's high school seniors last year took the Scholastic Assessment Test, the standardized exam most widely recognized by college admissions officials.

Although Anne Arundel students' SAT math scores had risen over the last several years, their scores on the verbal part of the test until this year had stagnated just above the national average.

But after a push to teach students more test-taking and analytical skills, school officials had anticipated a surge this year.

"The first sizable number of children to go through [the new program] took the test last year," said Thomas Rhoades, director of program planning for county schools. "We were sweating it because we had invested a lot of time and energy in this program."

For several years, Arundel high schools offered 10th- through 12th-graders an SAT prep course as a semester-long elective, similar to the strategies and practice sessions offered by private SAT tutorials.

But in 1997, school officials started slipping some of those same skill lessons into everyday course work. Starting in sixth grade, English and language arts classes now include some SAT-type questions in classroom discussion and on regular tests.

School officials say that high SAT scores aren't the only goal, and that the powers of analysis demanded by the SATs--how to interpret and answer questions about a short article, how to link abstract concepts in a series of analogies--are worthwhile skills on their own.

Rhoades said he was not troubled by the one-point dip in the math scores, which he said was not statistically significant. He noted that Arundel's math scores are already impressive--532 on an 800-point scale, compared with 507 throughout Maryland and 511 across the country. Math, he noted, is a more straightforward skill for which Arundel had less room for improvement than with its verbal scores.

With math, he explained, "you're either going to be solving a quadratic equation or you're not . . . whereas verbal skills are far more diffuse."

Rhoades also noted that Anne Arundel made significant gains in the number of students participating in Advanced Placement courses and exams, which provide college-level studies in several subjects.

The size of the county's AP program grew by nearly 10 percent from 1998 to 1999, to 1,268 students. The number of AP exams with a score of 3 or higher (on a 5-point scale) increased by 19 percent, to 1,511.

"I'm more concerned with AP results than SAT results," Rhoades said. "SAT results express a long accumulation of learning, while AP represents something the teachers did this year."

SAT Scores

Anne Arundel County Public Schools 1998-99 Averages

School Verbal Math Percentage of

seniors tested

Annapolis 528 527 54

Arundel 522 522 66

Broadneck 540 550 65

Chesapeake 512 549 47

Glen Burnie 475 510 34

Meade 501 488 49

North County 500 498 38

Northeast 484 509 42

Old Mill 493 522 55

Severna Park 549 569 80

South River 558 570 55

Southern 530 543 35

Source: Anne Arundel County Public Schools