The results are in, and they aren't good. But they aren't all bad either.

Prince George's County's scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests declined slightly this year, disappointing school officials who had hoped to see some improvement as they attempt to pull the much maligned system up by its bootstraps.

Results released last week show that 31.1 percent of the third-, fifth- and eighth-graders passed this year's exam, down from 32.1 percent last year.

The county's performance on the six-year-old MSPAP tests reflects a trend throughout the state, in which scores at a number of schools slipped after years of encouraging increases. Statewide, 43.8 percent of elementary and middle school students passed the test, compared with 44.1 percent last year.

Some school officials played down the decrease, calling it too slight and statistically insignificant to worry about. But other officials, including Prince George's School Superintendent Iris T. Metts, sounded a more anxious note, saying that although overall scores did not decline dramatically, they did not improve either.

"We may be holding our own," Metts said. "But we're not making the gains we need to make progress. We have to figure out a way to really jump our scores."

One way to do that would be to look at schools such as James McHenry Elementary, in Lanham, where overall MSPAP scores have climbed from 14.6 percent to 31.8 percent in the past three years. Cited by Maryland School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick as an instructional success story, James McHenry raised its scores, in part, because of its partnership with a Blue Ribbon, or outstanding, school in Anne Arundel County.

As partners, teachers at the two schools have coordinated their lessons, and students communicate about their studies through e-mails.

And there are other encouraging MSPAP results.

Although Prince George's County's MSPAP scores are still the second lowest in the state, above Baltimore, several schools in the county posted overall pass rates at or near the 70 percent rate that the state has set as its goal.

What's more, said Associate Superintendent Leroy Tompkins, this year's results show remarkable gains for at least 20 schools that have raised their overall scores from the teens and low twenties to the state average and above. And dozens more schools show consistent gains of at least 10 points or more over the six-year period.

"Everybody likes to talk about the fact that we're second to last," Tompkins said. "The fact is we have some schools that are performing exceptionally well."

Patuxent Elementary is one of them. Once near the bottom of the MSPAP scoring tables, the Upper Marlboro school's scores have gone from an 18.3 percent pass rate in 1994 to 57.2 percent this year. Kenilworth Elementary, in Bowie, also managed to maintain its high MSPAP ranking, with more than 65 percent of its students passing the test. And although its score fell from a high of 74.7 percent last year, Oaklands Elementary, in Laurel, still managed to come close to the state average at 69.9 percent.

Even among troubled schools, success stories exist.

Of the 12 elementary and middle schools the state is eyeing for takeover, eight had overall MSPAP scores that rose.

But four targeted schools--Beacon Heights Elementary in Riverdale, Seabrook Elementary, Nicholas Orem Middle in Hyattsville and Stephen Decatur Middle in Clinton--posted lower scores than last year.

Metts said she has not had time to analyze what went wrong with the targeted schools whose scores went down but would make that a priority.

At Doswell E. Brooks Elementary, in Capitol Heights, Principal Cecilia Bowlding said she knows why MSPAP scores increased nearly 8 percentage points, from 12.7 percent to 20.6 percent.

"We have a new administration and a new commitment on the part of the staff," Bowlding said. "But it's an improvement, and we're proud of it."

Metts pointed out that she was not superintendent when the latest MSPAP tests were administered. In some ways, she said, the blame for the poor showing can be placed on systemwide problems such as lack of funding for computers and other resources, morale problems among school staff members and the rapid rate of teacher turnover.

"It's about keeping good teachers in the system and stability," Metts said. "We're attacking this on all fronts."

And it's about making sure that students master basic skills, Metts said. She said she plans to revamp instruction to focus on reading, writing and math.

The state developed the MSPAP tests six years ago as a way to push schools to do a better job of preparing students for workplace success.

The test--which has been controversial, in part, because many people believe teachers spend too much time preparing students for the exam--asks no multiple-choice questions. Instead, it poses open-ended questions, some with no right or wrong answers.

Although every student takes the exam, state school officials are more interested in measuring a school's overall performance than in how individual students performed.

Schools that do well on the test are rewarded with cash bonuses. Schools that perform poorly become vulnerable to state takeover.

Metts, whose annual bonuses are tied to how well she can improve the school system, said she is determined to raise MSPAP scores by six points each year.

"I can't promise we'll be at the state average next year," Metts said. "But we will see some increases."

She added that unlike other school systems in the region, including Montgomery and Fairfax counties, she is not interested in punishing principals of schools that perform poorly on MSPAP and other standardized tests.

"I think there are better ways to measure the success of a school," Metts said, adding that she often considers the students' artwork and musical skills when measuring whether a school is doing a good job of teaching.

"We ought to be fair," she said. "We want to be high achievers, but we don't want to set unrealistic goals."

CAPTION: School Superintendent Iris T. Metts.

CAPTION: MSPAP Results in Prince George's County (This graphic was not available)