Scores for Maryland's graduating high school seniors on SAT tests have declined for the third year in a row, and results released Thursday suggest that less than half of Maryland students are leaving high school ready for college.
The College Board, which owns the decades-old test of college readiness, also reported a decline in participation in the SAT, while the rival ACT — the American College Testing assessment — continues to grow in popularity.
A quarter of Maryland's graduating seniors took the ACT last year, according to data released last week — more than triple the number that took the exam a decade ago, but still far fewer than the SAT.
Maryland students who graduated in 2015 averaged a composite score of 1552 on the SATs — 491 on reading, 493 on math and 478 on writing. A perfect score on one section is an 800.
Nationally, the average composite score was 28 points higher than in Maryland, where scores in each section have fallen several points over the past three years.
The College Board said 41 percent of Maryland seniors who took the SAT are ready for college or a career. The national average is 42 percent.
Sixteen percent of African-American students are ready, according to the data. Twenty-seven percent of Hispanic students are ready.
Jack Smith, chief academic officer for Maryland's Department of Education, said the SAT is only one of many measures to determine readiness.
"This is their definition of career-ready," he said.
He said other measures indicate that Maryland students are ready. Students are graduating with certificates showing they can move directly into a job, he said, and are passing other academic measures such as Advanced Placement classes.
Smith said he is more concerned about the scores of African-American and Hispanic students, which show them lagging behind statewide averages. African-Americans posted an average reading score of 425, with 417 in math and 412 in writing. Hispanic and Latino students averaged scores of 451 reading, 454 math and 443 in writing.
Smith said the scores highlight a need to continue working to close achievement gaps. He spoke of recent changes to state standards and curriculum.
"That is what these efforts have been about for these many years. We have to have high levels of expectations and high levels of support," Smith said.
Smith is poised to become interim state superintendent with the departure next week of Superintendent Lillian Lowery. Lowery announced her resignation last week to take a job with an education nonprofit in Ohio.
Other Maryland officials noted the trend away from the SATs as more students embrace the ACT as an alternative.
While the SAT is focused on logic and reasoning, the ACT is more focused on knowledge of content — a measure that appeals to many students, according to Henry Johnson, the assistant state superintendent for curriculum, assessment, and accountability.
"I think [students] are choosing the best college placement test to match their skills," said Johnson.
The increase in Maryland ACT test takers mirrored the loss of SAT exams taken: about 1,000 fewer of this year's seniors took the SAT, while 1,000 more students took the ACT.
ACT scores rose. The composite ACT score rose to 22.7 out of a possible high score of 36 in 2015, the third straight year of increases.
The ACT, which until recently was given primarily in Western states, has grown in popularity across the country as students seek to gain an edge in college admissions. The College Board is developing a new SAT test to be introduced in March. It's expected to be more like the ACT.
Some students take both the SAT and ACT to see which produces better results.
Howard County public schools, a district that ordinarily posts some of the highest scores in the state, has seen more students taking the ACT in recent years.
"But most of our ACT test-takers also take the SAT," spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said.
"We attribute the uptick to increased information-sharing about the test," she said. "Students are becoming more aware that many colleges accept both tests on the East Coast."
Howard County, the only school system in the region to release its 2015 SAT results this week, showed a composite score of 1656 — 548 on reading, 565 math and 543 writing.
Students at Howard's Centennial High School in Columbia did particularly well, with a composite score of 1797 — nearly 600 on each of the three sections.
While more high-achieving students in Howard are taking the ACT, some school systems, such as Baltimore County's, are giving the SAT to every junior during class hours. The result is that students who weren't motivated to sign up to take the exam on a Saturday are now taking it during a school day.
When a larger group of students takes the test, scores tend to fall.
With the release of statewide results, the advocacy group MarylandCAN published a report analyzing SAT data from Baltimore to illustrate how even college-preparatory high schools are failing to prepare low-income students for college.
MarylandCAN said non-selective high schools in cities such as Boston — which serve comparable numbers of poor students — are doing as well as, or better than, Baltimore flagship high schools that have entrance criteria. Among schools examined were Baltimore City College, Polytechnic Institute, Baltimore School for the Arts and Western High School.
"We have kids who are working hard to get into the best public high schools we have to offer, and they could actually be getting higher SAT scores in non-selective high schools in some of these other cities," said Jason Botel, executive director of MarylandCAN.
"That should be an outrage," he said.
Nine out of the 10 schools in other cities to which MarylandCAN compared Baltimore's schools were charter schools.
MarylandCAN recommended that the state continue its push for charter school reform.
"We've been seeing our students crying out because of the lack of economic and educational opportunities," he said. "We're not creating enough of them in Baltimore, and if there's a clear need for us to do that, this is the moment."
City school officials declined to comment on the report Wednesday. Baltimore City school spokeswoman Edie House Foster said officials will release city SAT data after the school board and CEO Gregory Thornton have been briefed.