High school juniors improved their scores on standardized tests, but fewer than half of students are performing at grade level, according to data released Thursday by the state.

State education officials also say the data shows that 38 percent of students allowed to graduate from high school are not proficient in math and reading.

Results of the SAT given in May to nearly 13,000 juniors show that the highest gains are in math, which now outpaces critical reading scores. It is the second-highest math result in the nine-year period since the state began using the test to assess student performance.

Maine has a 96 percent participation rate for the SAT, a standardized test given nationally, because the state requires high school juniors to take it as part of the Maine High School Assessment. That will change next year as the state transitions to the Maine Educational Assessment for Mathematics and English Language Arts/Literacy, which will assess all students in grades three to eight and in grade 11.

Most states do not require their students to take SAT and do not use the scores to assess educational proficiency, so it’s not known how the percentage of Maine’s students graduating without proficiency in math and reading compares to other states.

It is also challenging to compare SAT scores for individual schools year over year because they involve different cohorts of students, education officials say.

Still, the scores are a valuable indicator of how students are performing and the areas in which schools need to focus on early intervention and strengthening curriculum, the state’s top education official said Thursday.

Education officials say 38 percent of students who are allowed to graduate from high school are not proficient in math and reading. Graduation rates have been climbing steadily and were last reported at 86.4 percent, according to the Department of Education.

Acting Education Commissioner Rachelle Tome said that proficiency and graduation rates are a “pervasive concern” because the department often hears from businesses and post-secondary schools that students are not ready for jobs or for college-level classes.

“We’re saying with the current diploma that they have everything they need, but do they really?” Tome said. ” It’s not going to be about time in your seat, but learning and being able to demonstrate that you actually do understand.”

In an analysis of state test scores last year, David Silvernail, director of the Center for Educational Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine, said it was concerning that, given Maine’s graduation rate of over 80 percent, the state is graduating students who are not proficient.

“Considering the resources and time we’ve invested, it’s fair to expect we would be moving the needle more than we are,” he said after the release of 2013’s scores. Scores for 2014 changed only slightly from the previous year, within 2 percentage points or less for each test.

Maine’s graduation rate matches the median graduation rate of the five New England states – Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont – that participate in the New England Secondary School Consortium. New Hampshire records the highest graduation rate at 87.9 percent, while Rhode Island trails at 79.7 percent, according to the consortium’s 2014 annual report.

However, Maine’s SAT scores were lower than other New England states. According to the College Board, which administers the SAT, Maine’s mean scores for the SAT test were 467 for reading, 471 for math and 449 for writing —1,387 overall, and a 7-point rise from 2013 scores. The College Board considers an overall score of 1,550 to be the benchmark for college and career readiness. By comparison, Massachusetts had an overall score of 1,556. New Hampshire had a score of 1,566 and Vermont had a score of 1,554. Rhode Island’s overall score fell short of the College Board’s college-ready benchmark at 1,480.

The percentage of students who achieved proficiency or above in math was 48.5 percent, up from 47.7 percent the previous year, according to the Department of Education.

Critical reading proficiency scores dropped slightly to 47.6 percent from last year’s 48.6 percent. The percentage of students who exceeded proficiency was 9.1 percent.

Junior writing proficiency was 45.2 percent, up from 43.3 percent last year.

There were also significant increases in the scores of juniors and eighth-graders on the Maine Educational Assessment for Science, which also was given last spring.

Data from the College Board, which oversees the SAT exams, shows Maine students’ average scores are up in critical reading and math, but down slightly in writing. The biggest gain was in critical reading, which saw a 5-point jump to bring the average score to 467.

The average math score of 471 increased 4 points from the previous year. The average writing score fell by two points to 449, according to the College Board.

According to state education officials, 43.8 percent of juniors achieved proficiency or above in science, up from 41 percent the previous year. Proficiency among eight-graders jumped to 73.1 percent from 70 percent, the highest proficiency rate in the history of the eighth-grade science exam.

Starting in 2018, a new law will require schools to begin awarding diplomas based on proficiency in six content areas, including math and reading. The SAT test administered last spring will be the last time the test will be required, although it will still be offered to juniors using it for college placement scores.

At Biddeford High School, test scores were up in math, science and critical reading, but dropped slightly in writing. Superintendent Jeremy Ray said the gains are exciting and indicate the district’s efforts to focus on math and reading are paying off.

Biddeford’s biggest gain was in math, where the proficiency rate jumped 3 percentage points to 38.2 percent. Science was up nearly 3 points to a rate of 37.1 percent, while reading increased nearly 2 points to 35.7 percent. Writing scores dipped to 39.9 percent, compared to 42.4 percent last year.

Ray largely credits those gains to the hard work of students and teachers, and the district’s new customized learning block. That program gives all middle and high school students 40 minutes a day to focus on literacy and math.

“We’re trying to give kids a double dose of literacy and math. The kids have books in their hands more. We’re getting kids interested in reading again and I’m very proud,” Ray said. “Overall we were pleased to see growth, even though we recognize we have a ways to go.”

But as excited as he is about the improvements, Ray is hesitant to put too much focus on the state’s assertion that 38 percent of graduates aren’t proficient in the subjects when they graduate.

“You’re judging proficiency off of a single test on a Saturday,” he said. “Certainly the SAT is a valid indicator, but it is just one measure. I think schools are in a big transition right now.”

Tome said the switch next year to the Maine Educational Assessment for Mathematics and English Language Arts/Literacy will allow local school districts to better assess progress because officials will be able to track students each year as they move through the school system.