Anne Arundel County schools' slow, steady progress on state exams seemed to grind to a halt this past school year, as slightly fewer elementary- and middle-schoolers passed the tests, erasing modest gains county schools made in the 1997-98 school year.

Dismayed county officials said they will do an in-depth study of test data early next year to try find ways to improve their schools' performance. Though test scores dropped slightly across the state, Anne Arundel's decline--from 48.4 percent in the 1997-98 school year to 46.6 percent in the 1998-99 school year--caused it to drop in the ranks of Maryland school systems, from 11 to 14.

But on the bright side, a Pasadena school--little-heralded Bodkin Elementary--posted the highest passing rate on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams, given in reading, writing, language usage, math, science and social studies.

In jumping from the ranking of 202 to No. 1, Bodkin surged ahead of several elementary schools from the posher neighborhoods of Montgomery County and posted a first for Anne Arundel, whose best schools have always lagged a dozen or more steps behind the top in the state.

Principal Rocco Ferretti said Bodkin's achievement came not from a one-time push but from years of hard work and a remodeled curriculum.

"We should have been doing better in years past," he said. "It just all came together this year."

County school officials said they were not very troubled by the overall one-year performance drop, which they said is typical for a complex exam such as the MSPAP. But they are troubled that school scores have plateaued in recent years and say they can't quite explain why.

"As I listen to teachers around the county, they are clearly disappointed because they've put in so much effort and their children have been working so hard," Superintendent Carol S. Parham said.

The MSPAP exam, which attempts to measure how well students in grade 3, 5 and 8 can analyze information and solve problems, is the state's primary tool for determining whether schools are succeeding or failing in preparing children for the work force.

Unlike most standardized tests, MSPAP exams do not ask multiple-choice questions. Instead, students write short essays, perform simple science experiments and draw maps or charts. Individual questions often require students to draw upon more than one skill at a time--writing as well as math, for example, or reading as well as social studies. Other skills tested include grammar and science.

Schools that do well on the MSPAP are given cash awards or commendations by the state. Those that do poorly are monitored for potential state takeover.

Arundel scores this year still mark a significant improvement since the tests first began in 1993, when only 36.6 percent of the county's students passed. Still, the drop is disappointing. Arundel's scores now are just above the state average, which is 43.8 percent.

Only 42.3 percent of local third-graders passed the math portion, a drop from 47.3 last year. The percentage of fifth-graders passing math also dropped, from 57.5 to 52.4 percent. Grammar skills suffered similar drops. Arundel eighth-graders continued to show the same lagging performance in reading skills that has plagued their age group across Maryland. Only 23 percent of Arundel eighth-graders passed the reading part of the test, barely better than the 22.1 percent of six years ago.

Like last year, Arundel can boast seven elementary schools that have reached the state's goal of a 70 percent pass rate. However, three of last year's top schools--Windsor Farm, South Shore and Davidsonville--dropped out of that bracket when their scores dropped this year.

But three other schools--Bodkin, Jones and Oak Hill elementaries--pushed past that mark this year. Meanwhile, Severna Park Middle School--for years one of the state's top-scoring middle schools--dropped below 70 percent passing this year.

As happens across the state, the highest-scoring schools tended to be those in affluent neighborhoods, which generally attract the most experienced teachers and draw students from more stable families. Studies show that a school's poverty rate is the single greatest predictor of students' performance on standardized tests.

Yet some schools bucked the trend. Meade Heights Elementary, where more than 58 percent of students come from low-income families, has boosted its scores consistently over the past several years. This year, 51.9 percent of its students passed the exams.

Van Bokkelen Elementary, in Severn, which has been monitored by state officials since 1996 because of its low passing rate, remains the county's lowest-scoring school. But with a new principal who revamped the curriculum and pushed to get parents more involved in the school, Van Bokkelen has seen its scores rise steadily. This year, 22.2 percent of its students passed the test--up from 8.3 percent four years ago.

Scores can be found at www.msp.msde.state.md.us, on the state's Web site.