The average math SAT score of Maryland high school seniors dropped significantly last academic year for the second year in a row - and is now 13 points below students nationally, the College Board said yesterday.

State education officials said scores fell in part because more students are taking the SAT, particularly minorities, and because the math portion is harder than before. But other educators said the decline in math scores in one of the nation's most affluent and well-educated states is troubling.

"I think the sharp decline is a cause for great concern, if not alarm," said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. He said the state needs a work force "that is highly skilled in math, science and technology. And the fact that there's such a gap between Maryland and the national average is very disturbing."

This year's seven-point drop in Maryland's average math score, to 502, was among the steepest in the country, a College Board official said. The state's reading and writing SAT scores remained in line with national averages.

The results came as College Board officials announced yesterday a second year of declines nationally in average reading and math scores, and a slight drop on the mandatory writing portion introduced in 2006. The average score nationally in math dropped from 518 to 515, while the average critical reading score fell one point to 502, the lowest since 1994. Maryland's average reading score was 500.

Officials with the State Department of Education acknowledged that the drooping math scores are a cause for concern. But they also expressed satisfaction, saying that the 2007 results reflect increased ethnic and socioeconomic diversity among students taking the influential standardized college-admissions test.

"We have more students engaged in the SAT than ever before, and that's wonderful," said Donna Watts, who oversees K-12 mathematics instruction for the state. "The concern is ... what might it be in their preparation for the SAT that is lacking?"

Students from some minority groups, or who come from less affluent homes, historically have tended to score lower on the SAT.

Watts speculated that in some of the state's school systems, "instruction didn't keep up with the number of students" taking the math SAT, which was revised in 2005 to include Algebra II concepts and is considered by some to be more difficult.

Francis "Skip" Fennell, president of the National Council of Teachers of Math, said math teachers nationally are still adapting to the new exam.

"This is still a relatively new test," said Fennell, a math professor at McDaniel College in Westminster. "We haven't figured out what it is one needs to prepare for to the extent we had with the prior measurement."

At a news conference in Washington, College Board officials played down a second year of falling SAT scores nationally as largely the consequence of increased diversity among the test-takers in last year's senior class. For example, a new policy in Maine requiring all high school seniors to take the test - even those who do not plan to attend college - might have skewed the national results, according to Lawrence Bunin, who heads the College Board's SAT division.

Minority students comprised nearly 40 percent of the 1.49 million high school seniors in the Class of 2007 who took the SAT. And the achievement gap in critical reading between black and white test-takers - long a focus of criticism for opponents of the test - was at its lowest point nationally in 20 years, Bunin said.

But in Maryland, the gap between black and white test-takers increased this year by 3 points, with white students scoring 242 points higher on average than black students on a combined reading and math score. The average is 1,085 for whites and 843 for blacks, who were 25 percent of test-takers in the state's 2007 graduating class.

White Maryland SAT takers exceeded both the national average scores and those of white students nationwide in reading and math. However, the state's black students trailed their black counterparts across the country.

University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who has championed math and science education for black students, said those results were in a way a credit to Maryland.

"Maryland is different, in that we have encouraged a larger percentage of students from low-income backgrounds and minority groups to take the test and to consider going to college, which explains much of the difference in the SAT averages between blacks in this state and in the nation," he said.

Baltimore's predominantly black public schools, for example, began offering in 2006 to pay the SAT fee for any student wishing to take the test. That year, about 75 percent of seniors in city schools took the SAT, up 21 percentage points from 2005.

But just because a school system encourages students to take a college-readiness exam such as the SAT doesn't mean it is preparing them for college, said Jim Foran, executive director for high school and postsecondary initiatives at the Maryland Department of Education.

"Eighty-six percent of kids in Baltimore City who took the SAT are 'noncore,'" Foran said, meaning that they did not take a college-preparatory curriculum in high school.

"The good news is that schools within Maryland are encouraging students to think about college or giving them opportunities to take these tests," Hrabowski said. "The challenge we face is that we need to strengthen math instruction and focus on having rigorous courses in pre-calculus and calculus while strengthening reading skills."

Kirwan said the fact that Maryland's lagging SAT scores appear to be disproportionately related to a minority group should not give comfort to the state's education establishment.

"The work force of the future is going to be made up of the graduating classes from our high schools," he said. "And it doesn't matter if a high proportion of them are African-American. We've got to have an expectation that they will get the kind of education that enables them to succeed in a knowledge economy."

Johns Hopkins mathematics professor W. Stephen Wilson said his experience in the university classroom shows that there is ample room for improvement across all strata of students.

"I gave my calculus tests from 1989 to my calculus students last year," he said, and found the 1989 Arts and Sciences freshmen to have been "vastly superior" despite the increases in Hopkins' selectivity since then.

"Something is wrong with K-12 math education," Wilson said, "when you can't fill out the elite schools with people who can do basic math well enough."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com