Calling it evidence of persistent grade inflation in American high schools, College Board officials said last week that more college-bound students had A averages than a decade ago, but they scored lower on their SAT exams.

The College Board, which sponsors the SAT, said that test takers with A averages grew from 28 percent of the total to 38 percent in the last 10 years, but the SAT scores of those students fell an average of 12 points on the verbal portion, to 505, and 3 points on math, to 512.The disparity between grades and the SAT, the nation's leading standardized college entrance test, is sufficiently troubling that the president of the College Board, Donald Stewart, said the organization has commissioned a Rand Corp. study of the issue.

"We don't know why grades are rising," Stewart said. "The trend may reflect positive changes in education, but it may also reflect greater focus on personal qualities instead of academic achievement."

Over all, SAT scores remained about the same this year as last: 512 on the math portion, a point above last year and the highest in years, and 505 on the verbal portion, the same as last year. The figures were released last Tuesday in the College Board's annual report on the 1.2 million students who took the SAT before they graduated from high school last spring.

The College Board is the nonprofit educational association that sponsors the SAT, which is developed and administered by the Educational Testing Service. The SAT is the dominant test on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The ACT is more popular in the Midwest and West, including Utah.

The board also reported that substantially greater numbers of high school students are taking the test and that more were enrolled in advanced placement courses, making them eligible for college credit before enrollment.

Stewart said the scores revealed two troubling trends. One is that suburban students are improving their SAT scores, while urban and rural students are falling further behind, with a 30-point gap between urban and suburban students.

"This growing disparity is particularly troublesome," Stewart said, "because 40 to 50 percent of African-American and Latino students who take the SAT live in large cities."

Also, the SAT scores of the children of parents with less education are falling further below the national average, the report said.

These conclusions were based on the College Board's analysis of the 1.2 million seniors who took the SAT1: Reasoning Test, and 321,000 who took college-level Advanced Placement Examinations before graduation from high school last June.

The evidence of continuing grade inflation comes at a time when many states are requiring schools to adopt higher standards, though sometimes grading the students on the basis of portfolios of their work.

"More subjectivity is going into assessments," Stewart said. "This also could be the result of the increased emphasis on accountability by teachers. That is, since teachers are supposed to be teaching better they are giving out phony grades in an unconscious effort to show themselves well - something that is exploded by the SAT tests."

Bob Schaeffer, a spokesman for Fairtest, a longtime critic of testing services, warned that the prevalence of grade inflation should not be taken as an argument that the SAT "keeps the process honest." He said that proponents of the SAT "admit that high school performance is a better predictor of how someone will do at college than is the SAT."

Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest union with 2.4 million members, cautioned against blaming teachers for grade inflation. "If it's happening," he said, "no one could be supportive of that, but it may result from pressures from both parents and the schools. We just don't know."

Seppy Basili, a spokesman for Kaplan Educational Centers, the largest test preparation company in the nation, said "grade inflation is here to stay," and may be explained in part by the popularity of advanced-placement courses. "Students who do well in AP courses may receive a weighted grade which is higher than an A," he said.

Howard Everson, the College Board's chief research scientist, said that the increased number of students taking the test is "good news for the nation."

"It shows that there is a growing cohort of those who aspire to attend a competitive college," he said.

Basili attributed the rise in math scores over the last four years to a rule change that permitted students to bring along their calculators when taking the test.

"Having their calculators made them feel comfortable and helped them to avoid making sloppy mistakes," Basili said.

Stewart also said that even though there were growing gaps in the scores of urban and suburban students, there was relatively good news for minorities. "Despite the recent backlash against affirmative action, racial and ethnic minorities continue to see college as the route to a better life," he said. "This year, minority students are a record one-third of the SAT population and 28 percent of AP graduates, and more of them aspire to master's and Ph.D. degrees."

Ward Connerly, a black trustee of the University of California who has long opposed affirmative action, said he sees the increased number of racial and ethnic minorities who take the test as a welcome indication of their growing confidence.

"What this really represents is that with the demise of preferences in California and Texas, and soon the entire nation, blacks and Latinos are beginning to realize that they can make it without preferences," Connerly said.

Stewart faulted Connerly for failing to seek an alternative to affirmative action to equalize educational opportunity. Stewart said he, too, would oppose preferences, "but only if we can find a way to create equal educational opportunity."

In another trend reflected in this year's tests, many students' career aspirations seemed out of step with the prospect for jobs in the years ahead. Student test takers were asked to check off on questionnaires the careers they hope to pursue. Labor Department projections indicate that the top three occupations expected to grow most rapidly between now and 2006 are computer-related. Yet relatively few students (5 percent) checked off computing and information sciences.