"It's always devastating, because you would like to keep a constant upward trajectory," Assistant Superintendent Barbara Walker said Thursday. "We were surprised, because it was a very smart class that pulled in a record amount of scholarship dollars."
Average critical reading scores on the test, considered an indicator of college readiness, dropped from 492 to 486, average math scores dropped from 499 to 490 and average writing scores dropped from 492 to 483. The county was below the state and national averages in every area.
"I'd say that's a noteworthy drop," said Steve Ferrara, a longtime Washington-based testing analyst. "The question is, what explains it? And I don't think you're going to find any one thing."
The mean Maryland SAT score in math was 502; critical reading was 499; and writing was 491. The highest score possible on each section is 800.
The day after the results were released by the College Board, county officials said they had just begun to look for explanations.
"Nobody knows exactly what happened," Walker said. "It seems to us to be an anomaly, because so many schools dropped."
Walker said the Baltimore County decline can be attributed in part to a 7 percent increase in the number of seniors taking the SAT. Previous large swings in the county's scores have correlated with significant drops or increases in the number of test-takers.
In 2009, for example, the county saw a 16 percent drop in the number of seniors taking the SAT and a 15-point increase in combined scores. In 2006, participation was up and scores dropped 22 points from the previous year.
"Typically, as more kids take the SAT, scores go down," Ferrara said, "because all of the highest-performing kids were already taking the test."
The decline is consistent with a national trend. A record 1.65 million students from the Class of 2011 took the SAT. But their average scores were a combined 8 points worse than the Class of 2007 and 4 points worse than the Class of 2010.
Given the increased participation, Walker said, she's not surprised that scores are generally lower than they were five years ago. But she said Baltimore County officials will look for curricular trends that might explain the plunge in 2011.
"It's a matter of going back and looking at students who scored well," she said. "What courses did they take? We try to come up with a picture of what would be a more perfect pipeline. It has to go all the way back to kindergarten."
Ferrara said he would not expect such analysis to yield clear explanations. "The SAT is not very sensitive to small, recent changes in curriculum," he said.
College Board analysts often note that students who take more rigorous courses perform better on the SATs. But a lack of rigor is not an obvious explanation in Baltimore County, where the numbers of students taking and passing Advanced Placement exams has risen steadily in recent years.
Beyond the increased volume of test-takers, Ferrara wondered whether economic pressures might have left fewer families able to afford SAT prep courses.
The good news, Walker said, is that this year's seniors have outpaced the Class of 2011 in early SAT performance.
"We think this is really just a one-year thing," the assistant superintendent said of the 24-point drop. "This is not a science. Every class is different."