There are glimmers of hope and some hard-won gains, but Montgomery County elementary and middle schools dropped from fourth to fifth in the state this year on the high-stakes assessment test, the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

Most disturbing to school officials, county third-grade scores fell across the board in each of the six subject areas: math, science, reading, language usage, writing and social studies. The biggest drop, four points, came in language usage.

"This is certainly indicative that we need more concentration in the early years," said Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

The ranking drop comes as the county's composite score fell less than one point to 54.8, still well above the state average of 43.8. The MSPAP, administered every spring, tests students in grades 3, 5 and 8. Far from a multiple-choice test, the MSPAP requires critical thinking, answers to open-ended essay questions and some cooperative work in groups.

County eighth-graders posted gains in five areas and remained flat in language usage. Fifth-graders improved in three areas, stayed flat in language usage and math and dropped in writing skills.

And, true to the disheartening trend across the country, the county's African American and Hispanic students at all grade levels scored far below their white and Asian counterparts, posting scores about half as high.

"Because we've been growing in Montgomery County and have a growing number of students at need, we've battled to keep scores stable, let alone up," Weast said. "We've got to find ways to bend those scores up at a time when they've been inching down."

Still, Montgomery County has some firsts and bests to boast about. It is still first ranked among the large school districts in the state. And, although the state's top two highest scoring schools were in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, Montgomery schools filled seven of the state's top 10 slots, with, in descending order, third-ranked Potomac, Cold Spring, Somerset, Wayside, Westbrook, Bells Mill and Garrett Park.

Somerset elementary, in fifth place this year, was ranked first in the state in both 1997 and 1998. Wayside jumped from 47 last year to 6. And Garrett Park, with 13 percent of its population not fluent in English and 14 percent on free and reduced meals, moved from 21 to 10.

Thirty of the county's elementary and middle schools met the state standard of scoring at least 70 percent on the assessment test, up from 29 schools last year.

Dropping off the state list for meeting the standard are Jones Lane, Lakewood, Bradley Hills, Monocacy and Cloverly elementary schools. Joining the list are Chevy Chase, College Gardens, Cedar Grove, Fallsmead, Kensington-Parkwood and Bannockburn elementary schools.

Kensington-Parkwood's story is perhaps the most astonishing. The school was ranked 248th in the state last year, with slightly more than half of its students meeting the state standard. This year, it is in 41st place with a score of 73. And it is the only school in the state with one perfect score: Every third-grader met the "satisfactory" standard of scoring 70 on the math portion. Nearly 30 percent met the more rigorous "excellent" standard.

While some of the highest-scoring schools come from the more homogenous and affluent western side of the county, Kensington-Parkwood is more diverse. Nearly 15 percent of its 350 students are on free and reduced meals, a sign of poverty. It has a 13.6 mobility rating, which marks of interrupted education. Nearly 7 percent of its students don't speak English. And, because the school is small, some classes are taught in corners or in the faculty lounge.

"One hundred percent of anything is almost impossible," said Judith Lewis, Kensington-Parkwood's principal. "But we continually told them that they could do this, that no one was asking the impossible."

The school intensely focused its energies on test-taking techniques, giving students practice tests and teaching MSPAP terminology such as "explain," "define," and "list," so students wouldn't get hung up on the mechanics of the test, Lewis said. They instituted a "Read One Million Minutes" initiative. And they adopted a "Go for the Gold" theme, with pep rallies, skits and awards for good citizenship and academic performance. This year's theme is "Reach for the Stars."

Martin J. Burnett, principal at Cold Spring, said his school's score, one of the highest in the county despite a six-point drop, reflects how seriously the staff there takes the MSPAP. "We think it enhances learning," he said.

Everything they do, such as sending routine fliers home for parents, they try to turn into an MSPAP-related learning activity, he said. Students as young as second-graders take practice MSPAP tests, work cooperatively in groups, learn test language through a "word of the week" activity that nets diligent students a book of their choice.

Even one of the lowest-ranked middle schools in the county, Parkland, is working hard to improve its scores by offering extra reading classes, extending the school day and sending teachers to observe the best practices in other schools. With some of the highest rates of poverty, transience and limited English-speaking ability, the school's three-point score increase was no easy task.

"We were quite a ways down," said Principal Carlos Hamlin. "You're not going to make up big chunks of ground in one year. But we are celebrating this."

Full results are available on the Internet at http://www.msp.msde.state.md.us