The percentage of African American and Hispanic students who passed their Standards of Learning tests in Virginia increased again this year, although their scores continued to lag behind those of white students.

According to state figures released yesterday, black students' scores rose on 22 of the 28 tests given in May in English, math, science, history and computer technology in grades 3, 5 and 8 and high school. Hispanic students' scores rose on 20 tests.

At the same time, the gap between the scores of blacks and whites ranged from 14 percent to 32 percent, and between Hispanics and whites from 5 percent to 24 percent. Black students narrowed the gap on most tests; among Hispanics, the gap widened on almost half the tests.

State Board of Education President Mark C. Christie noted that the scores of black and Hispanic students, like those of whites, have been rising since the tests began in 1998. "What we have is a picture of tremendous progress being made over five years, with a need to continue in that direction," he said.

State officials particularly applauded the percentage of black and Hispanic students who passed the two most important high school tests, English reading and English writing, which next year will be required for graduation.

Seventy-six percent of black students passed the high school reading test, compared with 70 percent in 2001, and 75 percent passed the writing test, compared with 72 percent last year. Seventy-nine percent of Hispanic high school students passed the reading test, up from 75 percent last year, and 80 percent passed the writing test, up from 77 percent.

Fairfax County School Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech said he remained concerned about the disproportionate number of black and Hispanic students -- especially in high school, where diplomas will depend on the tests starting in 2004 -- who continue to fail.

"This is a concern I have voiced repeatedly and continue to voice," he said. "These students are very much at risk. The problem is going to be with our minority students and with our language-minority students. A disproportionate number of those will not pass."

Domenech said closing the achievement gap with whites is an important but particularly difficult goal, since the scores of white students also have risen steadily since the tests began in 1998.

"It's not like it's a stationary target. It's a moving target," he said. "As we raise the achievement of all of our students, it makes it much harder for minority students" to catch up.

Among whites, 90 percent passed the high school reading test and 89 percent passed the writing test. Asian students and Pacific Islanders, grouped together in the statistics, did as well or better than white students on most tests.

At least 70 percent of white students passed every test that was administered, while African Americans reached the 70 percent pass rate on six tests and Hispanics on 10.

Seventy percent is an important benchmark because, beginning in 2007, each school must achieve a 70 percent pass rate among its students or lose its state accreditation.

Besides the high school English tests, Christie said he was encouraged by black students' scores on the Algebra I test. Since 1998, the pass rate on that test among black students has risen from 20 percent to 64 percent.

Christie said the key to raising minority scores across all grade levels and subject areas is to improve reading in younger grades. Across all ethnic groups, scores on the third-grade English test are among the worst on any test, but African Americans, with 55 percent, and Hispanics, with 59, scored the lowest.

"Reading in the early grades is the single biggest priority for the board and for the education system," Christie said. "If children read in elementary school, they will do fine for the rest of their educational career."