Maryland's graduating seniors scored lower as a group on the SAT than any class in the past 20 years and also scored below the national average, according to results being released Tuesday. But a top state education official downplayed the significance of the decline.

Caroll Visintainer, assistant superintendent for assessment at the Maryland State Department of Education, noted that the drop — which continued a gradual decline of many years — was small.

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"I acknowledge there is a drop," Visintainer said. She could not explain the decline in scores.

Results show that average scores for Maryland seniors on the standardized test — taken by most high school students in the spring of their junior year or fall of their senior year — fell in reading, math, and writing. The test is widely used for college admissions.

Compared with 2015, the average state score dropped 2 points to 490 in critical reading, 4 points to 490 in math and 4 points to 476 in writing. The highest score on each section of the test is 800.

Explaining year-to-year changes can be difficult, in part because of changes in the pool of students taking the SAT, which is administered by the New York-based College Board. The number of Maryland seniors taking the test has fallen over the past two years, from nearly 50,000 to roughly 48,000, as more students take a rival test called the ACT.

At the same time, at least two Maryland school systems have been requiring all juniors to take the SAT, bringing into their pool students who may not be likely to attend college and might not have taken the test in the past.

The scores are for seniors who had taken the SAT at least once in their high school career.

In the past, Maryland students have scored at about the national average in reading and writing but lower in math. This year, Maryland scores were significantly below the national average, particularly in math, which was 18 points lower than the nation as a whole.

Carroll County students scored higher than the state average, however.

Carroll County's SAT scores were "fairly consistent" with past years, said Gregory Bricca, director of research and accountability for Carroll's school system. Carroll's critical reading score went up one point to 524, the math score dropped one point to 531 and the writing score fell five points to 505. Overall, the class scored 1560.

Other school systems in the Baltimore region were not immediately able to provide their county's scores.

In Carroll, the uptick in critical reading continued an upward trend and was the highest reading score in the last five years, Bricca said. The math score was the second-highest in the past five years.

Carroll County educators have been trying to emphasize college-readiness to students, Bricca said. Starting in ninth grade, students who are thinking about attending college are encouraged to develop a plan that culminates in Advanced Placement courses or dual enrollment at Carroll Community College.

Those more rigorous classes can help students do better on the SAT, Bricca said.

In Carroll, about 60 percent to 65 percent of students in each graduating class typically take the SAT, he said. Students in Carroll choose to take the test on their own, unlike some counties where the school system offers the test during the school day or pays the testing fees.

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The most significant drops in SAT scores came two years ago, when Baltimore County and Prince George's County began giving the tests to the entire 11th grade during the school day. The scores have been used both to encourage students to apply for college, as well as to assess their progress toward college-readiness.

Baltimore County, for instance, used the SAT rather than the PARCC, or Partnership of Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers test, to judge whether seniors needed to take a remedial English class this year.

The PARCC test is administered to every third- through eighth-grader; the test focuses on reading and math.

Anne Arundel County announced last week that it will pay for all 5,600 of its juniors to take the ACT college entrance exam beginning this spring. The test will be administered during the school day. As part of the shift, Anne Arundel is dropping its practice of administering the PSAT in grades nine and 11.

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