Howard County high schools showed a one-point gain in their 2004 SAT scores, but scores on the college placement exam for the county's African American students slipped despite efforts to close the achievement gap.

Howard's new data analysis system reported that the Class of 2004 posted an average composite score of 1094 on the two-part test, with an average math score of 554, the same as in 2003, and a verbal score of 540, an increase of one point over last year. The scores are out of a possible 1600.

Seventy-five percent of students in the Class of 2004 took the exam, a participation rate below the county's goal of 80 percent.

The Educational Testing Service, which developed and scored the SAT for the College Board, reported Howard's composite score at 1097. But school officials said they wanted to "clean up" that data because it included test takers who were not members of the Class of 2004 and private school students. In addition, school officials said they wanted to better assess the scores of minority students.

"We're matching up the [ETS] data to our [student] data base," said Leslie Wilson, director of student assessment and program evaluation. The results, she said, "are more accurate for trends."

Howard's changes to the ETS data generally resulted in only minor modifications, with scores at some schools falling slightly and others rising. For example, Howard High School's composite SAT score from ETS of 1064 dropped to 1057 under the school system's reporting. On the other hand, Oakland Mills' SAT composite score of 1064 from ETS rose to 1067 with the county's analysis.

While two other Washington area school systems -- Fairfax County in Virginia and Montgomery County in Maryland -- posted average composite scores above 1100, Howard's score remained a few points below that mark.

"We would have liked to seen more growth in our SAT scores," said Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin. "It is used as a measuring rod for how well students are doing. People look at that number and understand what it means. "

Sixty-five percent of Howard's African American seniors took the SAT, a 6 percentage-point increase from last year, but their composite score dropped 13 points, from 934 in 2003 to 921 in 2004. Their performance on the test's verbal section dropped 12 points, from 474 in 2003 to 462 in 2004. Their math score in 2004 was 459.

"That does raise questions in our mind," said Cousin. "It's something we might have to look at in the system."

Two years ago, Howard adopted a comprehensive plan to close the achievement gap between non-Hispanic white students and African American and Hispanic students by 2007.

"I'm still very optimistic we will be able to have all our student groups meet the standards we set," said Clarissa Evans, director of secondary curricular programs. She said schools are offering SAT prep classes during and after the school day, and spreading the message about taking the college placement exam to parents and community groups.

"There are still too many students who don't know they need to prepare for the SAT," she said.

Wilson said raising the participation rate, especially among minority groups, sometimes encounters resistance from families in which the adults have not attended college.

"The future is, college really is going to be a prerequisite for most careers," said Wilson. "High school [alone] doesn't really do it anymore."

Although only 56 percent of Hispanic seniors took the SAT, they showed the most improvement among student subgroups. Their composite score of 1056 represented a 97-point gain over last year, with a jump of 51 points in the verbal score to 520 and a 46-point gain in math to 536.

Among ethnic groups, Asian students were the top scorers as they were last year, with a composite score of 1150 and a participation rate of 85 percent. White students came in second, with a composite score of 1120 and a test-taking rate of 77 percent.

All 10 Howard high schools had composite scores above 1000, and three -- Centennial, Mount Hebron and River Hill -- had average composite scores above 1100. Of the four schools where composite scores dropped, Atholton's fell the most with a 35-point slide, from 1083 last year to 1048 this year.

Long Reach High School posted one of the biggest gains among Howard schools, going from a composite score of 1024 last year to 1045.

"I really like this leap," said Long Reach Principal Edmund E. Evans. He said the school had started a comprehensive program over the past year and a half to offer more SAT prep classes and steer more students into taking the SAT.

Students are learning, he said, that "yes, they can do well on this thing and yes, they want to raise the bar for themselves."