For the second year in a row, the SAT scores of Carroll County's high school seniors dipped slightly while still remaining above national and state averages.
School officials cushioned the disappointment yesterday, attributing the "statistically insignificant" decline to chance and a mix of staffing, student and curriculum variables.
The average math score for Carroll's Class of 2000 dropped 3 points from last year's average, to 521, while the average verbal score slid 2 points, to 512.
But combined scores for the county's high schools showed declines that varied widely, from a 33-point drop at Francis Scott Key High (to 996) to a 19-point drop at North Carroll High (to 1023) and a 1-point drop at South Carroll High (to 1046). Liberty High students gained a point (to 1042) and Westminster High students gained 5 points (to 1034).
Dorothy Mangle, assistant superintendent of instruction, said the school system's biggest challenge will be to figure out why scores swung so widely from school to school.
"That, of course, is the most important question, and I can't answer that question," she said at a news conference yesterday. "That has to come from our schools."
The SAT is typically taken by college-bound seniors and is used in the college admissions process as a gauge of students' potential for success in their first year of college. Both parts of the test - math and verbal - are scored on a scale of 200 to 800 points.
Westminster High Principal Sherri-Le W. Bream has seen her share of test scores during 17 years in Carroll schools. She said she tries to look for the statistical significance when scores change from year to year.
"Teacher changes have an impact, course rigor has a tremendous impact and large class sizes certainly have an impact," Bream said. "Large class sizes in upper-level programs, year after year, take a toll on how much teachers can affect scores."
She said that administrators' tendency to shrink classes for students who need extra attention and help with reading has an unintentional effect of overloading upper-level courses.
"You have to offset those smaller reading classes somehow," Bream said, "but over time, that takes its toll. It all happens in the classroom: If you get students interested in the right classes ... and you put good, qualified teachers in front of them with a decent class size, that makes all the difference."
For Maryland as a whole, the average math score rose 2 points in 2000, to 509, while the verbal score remained unchanged at 507, the College Board reported Tuesday.
Maryland's slight increase occurs as the national average math score on the SAT climbed this year to the highest level since 1969, while the verbal average held steady for a fifth year.
This year's national average math score was 514, up 3 points from last year. The last time scores were higher was 31 years ago, when the average was 517. It dipped as low as 492 in 1980 and 1981.
The national average verbal score this year was 505, as it has been since 1996. That score is about 35 points lower than verbal scores in the late 1960s.
Of the five Baltimore-area school systems that released students' average scores Tuesday - Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties - all but Anne Arundel showed declines.
Analysis of Carroll's scores by the school system's instructional staff that male students continue to score higher in math than their female classmates. Males scored 532, compared with the average female score of 512, which falls below the county and national math score averages.
That gap, however, has narrowed in recent years, Mangle said, "thanks to the hard work of the instructional staff and guidance counselors encouraging girls to go beyond Algebra II. That's now a minimum for college-bound students. We tell girls that you certainly have more choices than female graduates from years ago, when your choices were, 'You can be a secretary, a teacher or a nurse.'"
This year's scores in Carroll also showed that:
With the exception of Hispanic students, minority students' verbal scores fell below the county average and the average for white students. With the exception of Asian and Hispanic students, minority students' math scores also fell below the county average and the average for white students.
Students who have pursued a rigorous academic program unsurprisingly continue to outscore those who have not. This year, Carroll students who had taken British literature and introductory analysis by their senior year earned an average score of 1093 - 206 points higher than students who had not met the benchmark for a rigorous academic program.
Mangle said Carroll officials did not release their scores until yesterday to allow time for staff analysis, "so we could try to report the data in a more meaningful way."