Standardized test scores in Howard County schools, like those in most districts in Maryland, slipped slightly this year, and the system has lost a source of community pride: It no longer ranks first in the state.

The county's composite score on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, a five-day exam given to public school students in grades 3, 5 and 8, fell from 60.1 in 1998 to 59.3 in 1999--about a 1 percent drop. The county's scores still sit well above the state composite score, which fell from 44.1 to 43.8.

The composite index represents the percentage of students scoring "satisfactory" on the test; the state's goal is for all schools to reach 70 percent.

Although Howard's decline is so small that it could be written off as "sort of random fluctuation," Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said, it came as a surprise and disappoints him greatly. "I wish we would have done better," he said. "I really thought that we would go up, because we put a lot of effort into that. . . . I really thought that we had the momentum that would carry us on in an upward direction."

Since the MSPAP was first given in 1993, the county--like all Maryland counties--has adapted its instruction to prepare students for the test. For example, students are taught to figure out the purpose of everything they read, and they constantly write paragraphs explaining how they got their answers, even in math and science, as they must do on the test.

Howard's composite score has risen about 10 points over the six years the exam has been given. Despite two other slight drops in the MSPAP score, in 1994 and 1996, the county always ranked first--until now.

This year, Howard was overtaken by Kent County, a rural district on the Eastern Shore. Kent raised its composite score from 32.6 in 1993 to 60 this year, largely on the strength of an aggressive superintendent, a focus on writing and smaller classes.

"Kent deserves a lot of credit for what they've done up there," Hickey said.

But Howard County officials say they are less concerned with losing the top spot than with the fact that scores went down in nearly 60 percent of the county's schools.

"We're worried about meeting standards," said Leslie Wilson, the county's supervisor of testing. "It doesn't matter where you rank in the state if you're not meeting the standards."

In third grade, Howard's composite index fell from 60 to 59.1, and the fifth-grade composite fell from 64.8 to 61.7. For eighth-graders, scores improved, from 55.1 to 57. Eleven Howard schools met the passing criteria this year, the same number as in 1998: Manor Woods, Centennial Lane, Northfield, Clarksville, Triadelphia Ridge, Thunder Hill, Hammond, Clemens Crossing, Pointers Run and Worthington elementaries and Burleigh Manor Middle.

Manor Woods (with a composite of 76.5) had the highest score among elementary schools, and Burleigh Manor (73.3) ranked highest among middle schools.

Also, state officials cited third-graders from Lisbon Elementary and fifth-graders from Clarksville Elementary for making consistent progress since 1993.

In nearly every subject and grade, Howard's gains and falls mimicked statewide trends. Scores in third-grade reading and writing continued to climb, science remained stagnant and language usage and social studies fell after rising for years.

Scores for fifth-graders fell in every subject, many after years of improvement by other classes of fifth-graders. Math and writing had the greatest declines, about six points each.

Eighth-graders continued to improve in math, science and social studies, and eighth-grade writing scores rose significantly--nearly four points--after a previous fall. The improvement for middle-schoolers was welcome after a three-year slide.

Dan Michaels, in his third year as principal of Glenwood Middle School, said the school's improvement--11 points, one of the county's biggest--came after the staff spent two years refocusing instruction to emphasize higher-level thinking skills, strategic reading, close attention to directions and less use of multiple-choice tests, which are not part of MSPAP. The faculty also took sample MSPAPs and studied test statistics on the state's Web site.

He is pleased that the school reversed its three-year MSPAP decline but is not satisfied to rest. "It's a big jump, but what we're really interested in is improving trends," he said. "What I will really be pleased with is if in two years, we've continued on an upward trend."

Overall, county school officials, who had predicted improvement, said they cannot begin to explain the stagnant scores until they have more time to study the numbers and can visit the schools with declining scores to determine whether they are following the proper curricula. Besides that, several criteria could explain sudden changes in test scores, according to Wilson: among them, staff turnover, redistricting that alters the makeup of a school or variations in the test from year to year.

"There's probably somewhat of a different explanation for each [school]," Wilson said. She emphasized that although Howard has never stopped trying to improve its scores, county educators will have to redouble their efforts. "To me, this is a real wake-up call," she said. "We're going to have to work harder--and we're going to have to work differently."

A complete report of Howard MSPAP scores will be presented to the Board of Education on Dec. 9.

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