Montgomery County high school students ranked highest in the state on the recent, first-ever administration of the high school assessments -- the five-subject tests that soon will become a graduation requirement.

County students were ranked first on four of the five subject areas and tied with Howard County on the fifth, English.

But beyond the rosy countywide ranking, individual schools are still struggling, with scores often showing great variation. Black and Hispanic students are still scoring, on average, about half as well as their white and Asian peers.

Scores in the county's urban core, where officials have created a new "downcounty consortium" and ninth-grade academies to create a small-school feeling and more personalized attention on academics, were among the lowest.

The scores, while not unexpected, have prompted Superintendent Jerry D. Weast to continue to focus on underperforming schools and students.

"We've got a ways to go," Weast said. "But at least we've got an infrastructure to help them."

The state has yet to set a pass rate for the exam, and therefore scores were reported in percentiles. Officials were quick to point out that students have several chances to take the tests, which are seen as an improvement over the low-level Maryland Functionals, before hitting graduation.

Despite the achievement gap in Montgomery, Weast said he was heartened that black and Hispanic students in the county ranked at just about the state average, ranking from the 41st to the 48th percentiles. He was encouraged that Montgomery's black students often far outscored their counterparts throughout the state.

Statewide, African American students ranked in the 28th percentile in algebra and at the 26th percentile in geometry. In Montgomery County, black students scored at the 45th and 46th percentiles, respectively.

Weast said the scores reflected the county's push to eliminate the easiest high school courses and encourage more students to take rigorous honors and Advanced Placement classes. Now, nearly half of all ninth-graders take algebra in middle school and 64 percent of all high school students in the county take at least one advanced course.

Studies have shown that the more rigorous courses a student takes, the higher test scores on statewide and college entrance assessments are likely to be. Yet other studies show that few African American and Latino students are enrolled in such courses.

"We are pulling them up," Weast said. "If we can get these kids in the same kinds of courses that top performers are in, and get them prepared, they're going to do well on tests like this. We're trying to do that."

Still, the specter that the achievement gap will mean children of color not passing these assessments and not getting diplomas looms.

"On the statewide level, there's a real concern," Weast said. "I'm going to do everything I can to get every kid across that line."

To that end, Weast has spent the past two years concentrating resources and reforms at the high school level -- creating the downcounty consortium and encouraging teachers to put struggling students into double-period algebra -- and way back where the achievement gap begins, in kindergarten.

Uncomfortable data like this, Weast said, are the only way to force change.

"The data [force] us to come up with a plan, because you can't blame the children," he said. "And that's what our county's been doing. Attacking the problem head-on, even when it hurts, and going after the funding to support it."

Indeed, in Weast's proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins this summer, he plans to eliminate 80 positions, cutting $15.6 million from the current budget, and is asking for $94 million more not only to keep up with growing enrollment, but also to preserve reforms to boost underperforming students and schools.

Scores for individual schools show the county has work to do.

Students at Walt Whitman High School, one of the highest-scoring schools in the county, ranked in the 88th percentile of all students in the state on the English exam. Students at Wheaton, where a number of students come from poor or non-English-speaking backgrounds, ranked in the 42nd percentile.

In algebra, often considered a critical gateway to higher math and science courses and professions, county schools again showed considerable variation. Students at Churchill and Wootton ranked in the 80th percentile. Students at Gaithersburg ranked in the 24th.

Surprisingly, students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase, where the community has pulled together to prove that an increasingly urban and diverse school can be high-performing, scored in the 12th percentile on the government exam.

Scores on the other tests mirrored top-scoring schools in the rest of the county.

Bethesda-Chevy Chase Principal Katy Harvey said there's an easy, albeit disheartening, explanation. Students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase used to take the national, state and local government course in ninth grade, rather than in 10th grade, as students in the rest of the county do. Last year, they made the switch to match the county curriculum.

Since most 10th-graders had taken the government course, they studied U.S. history, along with the ninth-graders. That meant that the only students taking the statewide government assessment were transfer students, many of whom spoke little English, Harvey said.