As more students took the SAT in Maryland last year, average scores on the college readiness exam plummeted, falling below the national average for the first time in years, according to data released Tuesday.
The drops appear to have been influenced by policy changes in at least two large school systems — Baltimore and Prince George's counties — that allowed every high school junior to be given the test.
With the school system paying for the test, Baltimore County had a 58 percent increase in test takers and saw scores drop about 50 points on each section of the test — critical reading, math and writing.
The school system expected to see dramatic drops but wanted to remove barriers, said Russell Brown, chief accountability officer for Baltimore County Public Schools.
"It is a push to afford that opportunity to all students. Many students find the additional cost to be a burden," Brown said. "It communicates to the students an expectation of college and career readiness."
Statewide, the average score dropped 5 points in each section to 492 in critical reading, 495 in math and 481 in writing. The national average was 5 points higher in critical reading, 18 points higher in math and 6points higher in writing. The highest score on each section of the test, which is administered by the New York-based College Board, is 800.
The number of students who took the test in Maryland increased by 3 percent.
Officials from the Maryland State Department of Education declined to be interviewed about the scores.
Some local school districts bucked the trend. Howard, Carroll and Harford counties all saw a slight increase in their scores. Howard County, where not every student takes the test, had the region's highest scores.
Anne Arundel County's scores remained above the state average in reading and math, but dipped from last year. The reading score was 500, the math 510 and the writing 479. Overall the scores were down by 9 points, including 4 points in math and 5 points in writing. The reading score was unchanged. Officials did not say what they believe caused the drop, but said that the same percentage of students took the test as last year.
The Baltimore City school system refused to release its data, declining to say why.
Education officials saw it as a positive sign that greater numbers of students took the test, including those who might not have considered college before. Overall, 4 in 5 Maryland seniors have taken the SAT. Between 2013 and 2014, African-American participation in the test rose by 5 percent and Hispanic participation was up 13 percent.
Average test scores rise significantly for every $20,000 of family income as well as each increase in the parents' highest level of education. African-American and Hispanic students, who are more likely to be in lower-income brackets, generally have lower scores on standardized tests.
Generally Maryland students have scored at about the national average in reading and writing but have been lower in math. Large fluctuations in state SAT scores, like those this year, have not been seen in the past five years.
Mark T. Bedell, Baltimore County assistant superintendent for high schools, said the county hopes the number of students going to college will increase as the number of test takers grow. Baltimore County administered the test to students during a school day; normally the test is given on Saturdays at different locations. The scores reported Tuesday were the scores for seniors in 2014, who were the first class offered the SAT at school as juniors.
"What I have found is that you have students who are excited because they get to take the test during the school day. They get to take the test in a familiar environment," he said.
And Bedell said schools are offering programs on Saturdays and after school to help students prepare for the SAT. The county also is giving ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders the PSAT free during school hours.
Bedell said he has heard anecdotally from principals that more students appear to be attending college rather than just saying they want to. The county plans to track the actual rate of students who go to college.
But Bob Schaeffer, public education director at FairTest, a Massachusetts-based group that opposes testing and advocates for test optional admissions at colleges, disagrees with the idea of giving every student the SAT, or the similar ACT.
"There is no value in administering the test, particularly to students who have not done a college preparatory curriculum, other than diverting taxpayer money from classroom education to the testing companies who benefit," Schaeffer said.
Test scores correlate directly to grades in school, Schaeffer said, so students with lower grades who take the test will push scores down.
Schaeffer said three states — Delaware, Maine and Idaho — pay for all public school students to take the SAT. About a dozen states pay for their students to take the ACT, which is growing increasingly popular among Maryland students. The ACT was taken by 14,080 students in the state last spring compared with about 50,000 SAT takers.
ACT scores rose to 22.6 from 22.3 out of a possible high score of 36.
In addition to the SAT scores, the College Board also released Advanced Placement scores Tuesday. Maryland maintained its No. 1 ranking, a badge it has had for the past eight years, even though the data were released in a different format this year.
Maryland had the highest rate of 11th- and 12th-graders who took and passed at least one Advanced Placement exam. The state squeaked by at 22 percent, just 1 percentage point ahead of Massachusetts at 21 percent; the national average is 13.2 percent. Maryland also had the second highest percentage of AP exam test takers: 35 percent.
AP participation and pass rates rose in most counties. In Baltimore County, 22.1 percent of students took and passed a test, up from 21.3 percent last year. Anne Arundel's pass rate was 24.2 percent.
Advanced Placement tests are rigorous college-level exams given in more than two dozen subjects to high school students. Students are scored from a low of 1 to a high of 5, with 3 considered passing for an introductory-level college class.