The average SAT score of graduating seniors in Prince George's public schools fell by six points this year, but the county's Hispanic students performed significantly better on the college entrance exam compared with 2003, according to results released this week.

The countywide average score was 442 on the test's verbal portion and 439 on the math portion, for a combined 881 out of a possible 1600. That put the school system far below the national average score of 1026, which also happened to be the average score for all Maryland schools.

The bright side for Prince George's officials is that the average score of 905 posted by Hispanic students this year exceeded the countywide average and jumped from last year's 867. The average score among Asian and Pacific Islander students also climbed, from 982 to 995.

County schools chief Andre J. Hornsby, who took over the school system in July 2003, said he was pleased that more students took the SAT this year, with participation climbing from 4,178 to 4,203 test takers.

Hornsby attributed that gain to principals and counselors urging students to take the test and offering them SAT preparation courses. "I think the most important thing is that we started testing students who had not been tested before," he said.

Still, he said, he had hoped to see higher scores. African American students, who represent the largest group of test-takers in the county, scored an average of 840, down nine points from the year before. And the minority achievement gap persisted: White students, although posting a four-point decrease, surpassed their non-white classmates with an average score of 1087. School officials said they view the results as preliminary and plan to conduct a final review.

"Overall, we're disappointed that the scores fell," Hornsby said. "But part of what I said when I walked in here is that we have to understand that the rigor has not been in this school system that is necessary in order to achieve the overall results we are looking for in our students."

Howard Tutman III, president of the County Council of PTAs, agreed. "We have to do a better job of preparing our students," he said.

Hornsby said he has completely revamped the curriculum and directed teachers to spend more time on reading instruction.

He has put other measures in place since taking over the 137,000-student system. In the spring, he created an "accelerated curriculum" that incorporated the next academic year's material into the current year for elementary and middle school students. He also instructed teachers to give students weekend homework assignments, which had not been mandated before.

For high school students, Hornsby ordered his staff to design a more rigorous curriculum, requiring freshmen to take algebra and physics and spend longer blocks of time in English and math classes. Ninth-graders, along with eighth-graders, are also required to take the PSAT, a national test designed for 11th-graders preparing for the SAT.

"We are taking proactive measures to evaluate, revamp and increase the rigor of the curriculum and have implemented additional programs and initiatives to focus on reading, with a focus on our 3- and 4-year-old program," Hornsby said. "Research indicates that early success in reading predicts future educational success; we won't begin to reap the benefits of these initiatives until some years down the road."

Nationwide, the SAT average didn't budge from last year -- 1026 out of a possible 1600 -- with the average verbal score up one point and the average math score down one point. Maryland's students had a two-point increase in the verbal portion of the exam, with an average score of 511, but remained at 515 in the math portion.

Many educators and testing experts caution against using SAT scores to measure a school system's success or failure, because factors such as parental income and the percentage of students taking the test can affect the results. Scores tend to fluctuate among smaller groups of participants, while an increase in the number of students taking the test often results in lower scores because the additional test-takers are usually less prepared. But school officials and parents continue to emphasize the scores, especially when there are dramatic changes.

"As long as the colleges and universities are using it as part of their selection and admittance process, this is always going to play a key role," Tutman said.

At some high schools, the drops and gains were striking. At Fairmont Heights High School in Capitol Heights, students posted a 22-point drop in the verbal section and a 17-point drop in the math section, for a total average score of 818. Students at Charles H. Flowers High School in Springdale, however, had a 34-point gain in verbal and a 42-point gain in math for a combined average score of 881.

Students will have a very different test to contend with next spring, when the College Board, which administers the SAT, will add a writing test to its math and verbal sections.