Last year, school officials were calling Town Creek Elementary School's performance on the state's annual test of student skills "remarkable." The small St. Mary's County school accomplished what state Department of Education officials were hoping the entire state would achieve by 2000: It posted a composite passing score exceeding 70 percent.

The scores were for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) exams, the state's main tool for measuring schools' performance. The state uses the results to determine which schools will receive cash bonuses and which will become eligible for state takeover.

Now there is just a year to go before the state deadline, and scores for individual schools are moving up and down from year to year with most still far shy of the goal. And some education officials in Southern Maryland are beginning to publicly question the test.

Town Creek had a lot to boast about last year. It was one of only 80 schools statewide to meet the state goal, and it ranked 26th among the state's 792 elementary schools.

But just a year later, Town Creek has lost some of its bragging rights. Last week, results of the MSPAP exams taken last spring were released, and Town Creek's composite score had dropped to 64.9 percent. It ranked 105th out of 834 elementary schools.

Town Creek was not alone. Many other schools and counties that were praised for their improvement last year had a reversal of fortune this year. Statewide, the composite score dropped from 44.1 percent to 43.8 percent.

In Southern Maryland, Charles County's overall score rose from 41.9 percent satisfactory last year to 43.6 percent this year. Calvert and St. Mary's counties reported lower scores, with sixth-ranked Calvert going from 53.8 percent to 52.5 percent and St. Mary's moving from 48.8 percent in 1998 to 47.8 percent this year.

The scores released this year have triggered much anxiety over how realistic it is for schools to achieve a 70 percent pass rate by 2000, a goal the state set six years ago when it created the exam.

"There's no way. I don't know how that can possibly be met," said William J. Phalen Sr., a Calvert County school board member. "For MSPAP, I don't think anything is realistic because I don't think the test is a valid test."

Mary L. Haff, a member of the Board of Education in Charles County, said that the goal is unrealistic on a statewide basis but that many individual schools should be able to score at least 70 percent by next year. "I think the whole process has gone much more slowly than the state anticipated, for whatever reason," she said. "But I like seeing the standards high. There are schools that are meeting it. . . . It's doable."

Since its creation, MSPAP, which tests third-, fifth- and eighth-graders, has drawn both praise and criticism for its unusual approach. Unlike the traditional multiple-choice format of most standardized tests, the MSPAP asks many open-ended questions that do not necessarily have right or wrong answers. It also requires students to write essays, draw maps and work with other students to perform science experiments.

"I'm not sure that it's developmentally appropriate for third-graders," said Gene Rizzo, principal of Calvert Elementary. Calvert's scores increased from 40.3 percent last year to 46.5 percent this year. "It seems to me, from a statewide point of view, that if you give a test several times and the vast majority of kids are failing, you need to look at the test."

Nevertheless, some good has come of the MSPAP, Rizzo said. "MSPAP has helped the way we deliver instruction," he said.

Indeed, many schools have overhauled their curriculums to include more emphasis on reading and writing skills, to encourage analytical thinking and to provide students with more hands-on experience.

At Malcolm Elementary in Charles County, Principal Sandra Brehon credits the change in focus, and the county's initiative to improve reading skills, for her school's 12.3-percentage-point gain to 61.2 percent. "It means a lot to us, it really does," she said. "We're a very small school, and it means an awful lot to see [teachers' and staff members'] hard work paid off."

At John Hanson Middle School, also in Charles, the focus on reading and writing was a major boost for the school. This year, John Hanson scored 55.7 percent, up 13.3 percentage points from last year. "They were anxious to show what they knew," said Principal Heath Morrison.

The reward program the school set up to coax youngsters to put extra effort into preparing for the exam was also a big help. Local businesses sponsored daily raffles, offering prizes such as mountain bikes.

Despite the success stories, the MSPAP still fuels much concern throughout the state, including Southern Maryland.

"I've looked at this every year and I've never said it publicly, but someone needs to say that there's something wrong with the test," Calvert school board member Phalen said during a school board meeting shortly after the scores were released. "If there's anything consistent with the MSPAP, it's that it's inconsistent."

Phalen said later in an interview that he plans to urge state education officials to reevaluate the exam.

"I would like to see the state reevaluate the whole thing to see if this is the means we want to use to measure our students," he said.

Calvert Superintendent James R. Hook has already publicly questioned the exam. "When you get to a point when five of the six counties are leveling off, you start to have questions."

But Emily Thomas-Harned, former president of the Town Creek Elementary PTA, is asking few questions. She still considers the school a "little jewel" despite its drop in scores.

"I don't get too hung up on the test scores," she said. "I don't think the school is any less strong."