Calvert County public schools posted the highest average SAT scores in Southern Maryland this year, 27 points higher than the state average. Charles County public schools came next, with the widest swings from school to school: They had the two highest-scoring high schools in Southern Maryland and the two lowest.

And St. Mary's County public schools, third in the region, stood out for being absolutely typical: Students' average combined score of 1026 exactly matched the state and national averages.

St. Mary's officials were quick to say average is not good enough. "We are not satisfied with where we are," said Lorraine Fulton, deputy superintendent. "We have a very specific action plan in place to move forward, and we expect positive results in the next set of scores."

The SAT is the most important college entrance exam for seniors. It measures verbal and math skills and has a maximum combined score of 1600. Although many educators warn the numbers provide a limited and imperfect means of judging schools and districts, the scores continue to provide bragging rights to some administrators and a red flag to others.

"We're very happy with the 1053" average combined score, said Carol Reid, assistant superintendent in Calvert County. "We'd like to increase that. Our superintendent is fond of saying you can't calculate the effect an SAT has on opening doors for students.

"It's only a number," and people can argue about how much the test tells about a district, she said. "But it is important for our students to do well on it. As long as that's true, we'll help our students do well on it."

She mentioned a number of programs that may help students score well on the tests, including lunch-hour and after-school tutoring, computerized practice exams, prep courses -- and encouraging all students to take tougher classes. Calvert officials noted increasing numbers of students are taking Advanced Placement classes, and in middle school the system instituted just two tracks for students instead of five. "That affords all of our students an opportunity to learn the most rigorous curriculum," Reid said.

Calvert had a remarkably consistent showing from school to school, each ending up in the 1050 range, with just five points' difference from highest to lowest. Verbal and math scores were consistent as well, with no school posting numbers outside of the 524-529 range for the subsections of the exam.

In Charles County, the average SAT for the school system was 1047, an increase of 18 points over last year. On the verbal portion of the test, Charles scored 519, up from 512 last year. The county gained 11 points on the math section over last year, for an average score of 528.

Except for a 20-point drop last year, Charles County scores have risen in each of the past five years -- the average score this year is 58 points higher than in 1999. In addition, minority students in Charles made progress in closing the traditional achievement gap, school officials said. African American students in Charles improved their scores by 38 points, from 894 to 932, while white students' scores rose 14 points, from 1096 to 1110.

"SATs are like roller coasters, they rise and fall depending on the individual classes," said Superintendent James E. Richmond. "But from 2000 on, we've been way above the national and state averages, and I think that's something people lose sight of. It's amazing what we've done."

La Plata High School had the highest average in Southern Maryland this year, with an average score of 1108.

"Traditionally our scores are really high, but we're especially proud to go over the 1100 mark," said Donald E. Cooke, La Plata principal.

Cooke attributed the 28-point increase this year to the "ongoing quality instruction our kids are getting on a daily basis." Like other schools in the county, La Plata offers SAT prep courses to students and has a vocabulary word that students study each day to help with the verbal portion of the test.

Four of the five Charles County high schools increased their average scores this year. McDonough High School showed the largest improvement, gaining 37 points to 1070.

Lackey High School in Indian Head bucked the trend, dropping 80 points this year for an average score of 987, one point above Westlake High School. Lackey also had the lowest percentage of students taking the test in the county, 26 percent.

"[The scores are] definitely not where we want them to be," said Principal Jervie S. Petty. "Individual students did extremely well, then we had a few students who were not prepared."

Petty said the school would intensify its after-school SAT classes this year to make sure more students were prepared for upcoming tests. "Next year it will be better," she said.

School officials pointed out that the county is growing rapidly and is becoming increasingly diverse in terms of race and economic status.

"We have kids that come from very affluent neighborhoods and students that come from poor neighborhoods," Richmond said. "We're trying to break that barrier -- that's what it's all about."

St. Mary's average combined score dropped 16 points from last year, but 1026 is a familiar number for officials and students: That was the average in both 2000 and 2002.

St. Mary's schools have seen a consistent pattern over the past several years that mirrors state and national scores, Fulton said.

Later this month the school district will hold a workshop focused on the PSAT, the test some juniors take to prepare for the SAT. "We'll identify then specific areas of challenge, as we sit down with the principals and establish targets," Fulton said. They'll be looking especially closely at Great Mills High School, where students' scores dropped 38 points this year, from an average of 1048 to 1010.

"We'll look at our plan we've had in place and determine if we need to make some changes there," Principal Linda Lymas said. "We're monitoring our students throughout the school year." Teachers and administrators watch pre-test scores, and offer extra help in areas where they spot weaknesses.

She also noted that scores shot up the past two years -- a 44-point gain last year and a 58-point gain the year before that.

From 2000 to 2001, the school saw a big drop. So results have been bouncing around for several years now.

"We're going to push this year to rebound," Lymas said.

At Leonardtown High School the combined average score slid a few points from 1042 to 1037. At Chopticon High School, it dropped five points to 1025.

St. Mary's often pops up in the middle on state lists, said Thomas F. McKay(R-At Large), president of the Board of County Commissioners, on measures such as population and income.

Looking at the statistics, the county might look average, he said. "But what makes us above average is this new commitment to education that the Board of County Commissioners and the Board of Education has made." This year the two sets of elected officials agreed to a five-year plan that increases funding and accountability; the commissioners will look at a report card each year that is expected to show results that are better than middle-of-the-road.

Joe North, principal at Chopticon, said, "Our goal is to be above the state and national average."