Newsweek Magazine consistently places both C. Milton Wright and Fallston high schools toward the back of in its nebulous best high schools in American rankings, the only Harford high schools to receive such honors.
But neither school could top Bel Air High for average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores in 2010-11.
Among all 10 Harford high schools last school year, Bel Air High test takers posted the best average scores across the board in the three-part SAT, an important but wildly controversial standardized test that has been a major criteria used in college admissions decisions for five decades.
According to SAT results released last week by the Harford public school system, the best single school averages in the local school system were at Bel Air High: 530 in critical reading (previously known as "verbal"), 538 in mathematics and 509 in writing. Each section of the SAT is scored on a scale of 200 to 800 points.
The scores are for 12th grade students only who took the test last school year, although the SAT is routinely taken by juniors. Taking the test is highly encouraged for anyone who is considering attending college.
Bel Air High 2010-11 scores gained in all three categories: eight points in reading, three points in math and 14 points in writing. The school's average scores had peaked in 2008, with an average reading score of 531, an average of 554 in math and 527 in writing, before falling back until last school year.
Conversely, the average 2010-11 scores all fell at C. Milton Wright, which had posted the county's top scores in all three SAT sections a year earlier. C. Milton's latest scores were 526 in reading, down four points; 533 in math, down 19 points; and 505 in writing, down two points.
C. Milton Wright scores saw a steady gain from 2007 to 2009 in reading before scores started to drop last school year. In mathematics, C. Milton average scores had consistently risen until this year, but have varied in writing.
Bel Air had the second highest number of test takers, with 240 12th-graders taking the SAT in 2011. C. Milton Wright had the most participants, at 261 students.
Almost 100 students took the SAT at Joppatowne High School, which had the lowest average scores in the county, although some of the school's scores did post increases over recent years.
These increases include a seven-point increase in reading up to an average of 449 and a 15-point gain in writing scores to 424.
Conversely, the school's average math score dropped 12 points to 446.
Joppatowne's reading and writing scores reflected a somewhat steady decline from 2006-07 before increasing last year. While math scores have fluctuated since 2007, last year's score reflected a 22-point decline from the 2006-07 average of 468.
At Fallston High, average reading scores rose four points last year to 520; average math scores were up a point to 531; and average writing scores fell 13 points to 494.
Nearly 200 Fallston students took the test last school year.
Average Fallston reading and math scores rose from 2007 to 2009 and fell in 2010 before increasing again last school year. Writing scores have varied year to year.
At Patterson Mill High, where there have been only two senior classes, last year's average scores fell compared to scores in 2009-10.
Average reading scores dropped four points to 523; math scores fell 26 points to 524 and average writing scores decreased by 14 points to 502.
Last school year, 147 Patterson Mill students took the SAT.
Average reading scores for the 169 students who took the test last year at North Harford High dropped seven points to 500; math scores fell eight points to 516 and writing scores came in at 471, down 10 points from 2009-10.
In reading and writing, average scores at North Harford hit their lowest point compared to the previous four years, but math scores were on par with 2008-09 results.
Aberdeen High School scores include the students in the Science and Mathematics Academy, which brings the total number of test takers to 178 students.
Even with the magnet program's high achievers, overall mathematics scores at AHS dropped 12 points to 496, but reading and writing average scores rose.
The 2010-11 results for AHS include one point increase up to 495 in reading and five points, up to 472, in writing.
Science and Mathematics students' scores started being included in overall testing statistics in 2008, when there were increases across the board in Aberdeen High's testing data. Average scores steadily increased in mathematics until this past year, but reading and writing scores rose steadily until a drop in 2009-10.
Harford Technical High School's 136 seniors who took the SAT in 2010-11 posted an average reading score of 492 and an average math score of 500, though both declined from the previous year.
Reading fell by four points and math by 16. Average writing scores dropped by four points to 451 for Harford Tech.
In the past five years, Harford Tech average scores have risen and then fallen each succeeding year, starting at 452 in reading, 483 in math and 440 in writing in 2007.
Havre de Grace
For Havre de Grace High, a 492 average in SAT reading was an eight-point drop from 2009-10.
The average math score at Havre de Grace declined 22 points to 478 and the writing average fell to 464, down two points.
Prior to last year, Havre de Grace averages in reading and mathematics appeared to be on the rise, but writing scores of the past five years show a steady decline.
There were 75 12th grade test takers at Havre de Grace High.
Ninety-two students took the SAT at Edgewood High last year, when average reading scores rose two points to a 463; average math scores fell four points to 453; and average writing scores went up five points to 431.
For Edgewood, 2010-11 marked the first increase in five years in reading and writing, but scores are still lower than those in 2006-07, which were 472 in reading and 456 in writing.
Last year's EHS scores in math were also the lowest since 2007.
How Harford compares
The average scores for the Harford school system as a whole were 507 in critical reading, 512 in math and 481 in writing.
Last year's average scores for Harford were down from the previous year's, albeit slightly for reading and writing, which each fell a point. The average math score dropped 10 points.
Statewide last school year, average scores were 499 in reading, 522 in math and 491 in writing, according to the Maryland Department of Education.
"Harford County Public Schools continue to exceed the state average in math and reading," Executive Director for High School Performance Joseph Schmitz wrote in an e-mail. "We had a number of schools improve scores in one or more tested areas of the SAT, with one school improving in all three areas."
"We continue to implement initiatives in each of our schools to support more students in being successful on the SAT, and we will continue to work with schools to identify what works, and have them share their most effective practices to move the county ahead as a whole," he added.
Nationwide, the 2010-11 averages were 497 in reading, 514 in math and 489 in writing, according to the College Board.
Educators and the College Board, which runs the SAT testing program, typically caution not to read too much into SAT averages from one year to the next, or even one generation to the next, since there are so many variables involved, including the number of students taking the tests in a given year and whether an individual student may have taken the SAT prior to senior year.
Aegis Managing Editor Allan Vought contributed to this article.