Sixteen of Pennsylvania's 25 top public schools for average 2012 SAT scores were in the five-county area, with the top-ranked school - and almost all the lowest - in Philadelphia, according to a state study.
The No. 1 spot in the Department of Education's 2012 survey belonged to the Philadelphia School District's Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration High School, a magnet school for high academic achievers, which has held that SAT distinction since 2001.
Harriton High, in the Lower Merion School District, Montgomery County, finished second. Unionville High, in Kennett Square, Chester County, jumped from eighth in 2011 to No. 3 of 652 schools with reported scores.
Masterman was the only Philadelphia school to crack the top 25, with 15 others from the four neighboring counties.
Philadelphia dominates the bottom of the list with 25 of the 27 lowest-ranking schools, and that is something Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. intends to address in the action plan he will announce Monday.
Among its goals is getting more students to achieve SAT scores of at least 1550 out of 2400 and 21 points out of 36 on the ACT, another college-assessment test. Hite is calling for increased academic rigor and said he wanted to create a culture characterized by lofty goals.
"That's what Masterman does very well," Hite said. "Everybody who goes to that school is exposed to high expectations."
The College Board, which administers the SAT, considers 1550 to be a benchmark, indicating a 65 percent likelihood of a student's achieving a B-minus average or higher during the first year at a four-year college.
Masterman, with an average SAT score of 1925, and Central, at 1641, were the only city schools that hit the benchmark. The next closest was Mast Community Charter at 1495, followed by two competitive-admission district schools: The High School for Creative and Performing Arts, with a score of 1458, saw a decrease in its ranking from 2011. The Science Leadership Academy posted an average score of 1452.
Statewide, only 10.6 percent of public high schools had average scores of 1550 or higher, a decrease from 12.2 percent in 2011, according to an Inquirer analysis.
In all, 55 percent of public high schools raised their scores from 2011, and 45 percent experienced declines. In Philadelphia, where scores are traditionally lower, 65 percent of high schools showed improvement, while 35 percent saw their results fall.
Tim Eller, a spokesman for Gov. Corbett, said the SAT was just one indicator of how students might perform in college. To try to get students college- and career-ready, Eller said, the administration is taking "a more broad approach." Starting with the graduating class of 2017, students will be required to score at least "proficient" on the Keystone Exams, new standardized, end-of-course tests.
The state also is implementing curriculum standards and completing a new teacher-evaluation system that will take into account how students perform on standardized tests and what SAT results are.
For districts and schools that showed improvement in 2012, the new scores were cause for pride.
Jenkintown Junior-Senior High, with only about 40 test-takers, leaped from 31st in 2011 to ninth.
"It's the small school, it's the conscientious kids and the focus we have," said Superintendent Timothy Wade.
Unionville went from eighth in 2011 to No. 3. Principal Paula Massanari credited talented teachers and initiatives such as requiring all sophomores and juniors to take the PSATs for the last three years. The students get their results and can see where they need to improve, she said.
In addition, she said, her staff has been "very aggressive" in getting more students to take advanced-placement courses, increasing the numbers of AP test-takers.
Downingtown High School West, which surged from 56th in the rankings to No. 34, has also increased the number of students taking AP courses, said principal Thomas Mulvey.
Vying for the top
Conestoga High School, in the Tredyffrin-Easttown School District, and Lower Merion and Harriton High Schools routinely vie for places among the highest rankings. In the 2012 results, No. 2 Harriton moved up five spots.
Douglas Young, Lower Merion spokesman, said both schools had done consistently well. In recent years, he said, the district has provided no-cost and low-cost SAT preparation options to students with financial need and has seen score increases for those students.
"Our students and families take the college admission process very seriously," Young said.