Charles County Board of Education members this week spelled out specific academic improvements they expect from students over the next three to five years.

At a special meeting Tuesday, the School Board voted 4 to 3 in favor of setting so-called benchmarks for student achievement. The board settled on four criteria that specify how the county's 22,000 students should score on a variety of standardized tests.

Board members developed the standards at the request of county commissioners during this year's budget process. The commissioners said they wanted such details in exchange for giving the school system an additional $8.3 million next year. Commissioners decided to raise taxes to fund the schools' larger-than-usual budget request.

Though school board members agreed about the importance of developing such performance goals, they had varying opinions about what those measures should be.

For example, the board's first benchmark says that over the next three to five years student scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) exams should beat the state average by four points, ranking the county in the top half of Maryland school systems. On last year's tests, 41.9 percent of Charles students earned a satisfactory MSPAP score, compared with a state average of 44.1 percent of students.

Board member Margaret Young said students should be measured by their actual scores -- and not by the system's ranking in the state. She proposed that 70 percent of students be required to earn a satisfactory score on the tests, but a majority of board members disapproved of that idea.

"It is quite possible for our rankings to improve significantly even though our students' true achievement levels decrease," Young said, pointing out that other counties could see their MSPAP scores slip.

Mary L. Haff agreed with that argument, saying that rank "isn't something we can control." Haff and Young both voted against the benchmarks, as did board member Collins A. Bailey.

The second benchmark adopted by the majority calls for student scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test to exceed the state average by five points in the next three to five years. The county's students currently rank 12th in the state, with an average combined score of 996. The state average score is 1014.

The third benchmark says that student scores on the California Test of Basic Skills (CTBS), which quizzes second-, fourth- and sixth-graders on reading comprehension, language and math skills, should exceed the 60th percentile in the next five years. Student scores on CTBS now range from 45.6 percent to 63.8 percent, depending on the grade level and subject matter tested.

The final benchmark says that student scores on the upcoming Maryland high school assessment tests should beat the state average and rank in the top half of the state. The end-of-course testing will begin with the class of 2005.

Also at Tuesday's meeting, the school board approved a $135.1 million operating budget for the fiscal year beginning in July. The budget includes $76.2 million in county funding, an $8.3 million increase over last year. The school board originally asked for $10.4 million in extra funding, but trimmed its request when commissioners said full funding was not available.