Howard County's public schools share at least one serious problem with schools across the country: The achievement gap for minority students is pervasive here.

Although the county's black and Hispanic students generally performed better on Maryland's first High School Assessment than minority students statewide, they didn't keep up with local white and Asian students.

"This is a national gap, it's a statewide gap, and it's a local gap," said Long Reach High School Principal David A. Bruzga. "The gap does exist at all [Howard] high schools."

Last week's release of the assessment, which tested 250,000 eighth- and ninth-graders in five core subjects, documented lower scores for black, Hispanic and Native American students statewide compared with their non-Hispanic white and Asian peers. Montgomery County and Howard, which spend more per pupil than most of the state's school systems, posted the highest scores on the tests, which were administered last winter and spring.

The state has not yet established a passing score, so a student's performance was compared in a percentile ranking with all other test-takers in the state. The test, more rigorous than the current Maryland Functional Test, is expected to replace the functional test as a graduation requirement in coming years.

Among Howard schools, Centennial reported the best student performance in three of five subjects tested, and Hammond students posted the lowest scores in four of five subjects.

Leslie Wilson, Howard's director of student assessment and program evaluation, said the new state test held no surprises about the achievement gap.

"We don't like [the gap], but we know it exists," she said. "That's what our comprehensive plan is trying to address."

For at least 15 years, the school system has used its Black Student Achievement program as one way to try to boost scholastic success. This year, School Superintendent John O'Rourke launched a new strategy to close the gap by 2007, with individual support plans for struggling students at all grade levels. In addition, he has targeted 15 schools for more help because their overall student performance has lagged for years.

Long Reach is one of those 15 schools, selected in part because of its large number of special education students and those who speak English as a second language, Bruzga said.

Long Reach students made a fair showing in the debut of the assessment test, he said, pointing out that their scores were in the mid-range among the 10 high schools where students were tested.

"We've made progress," Bruzga said. "This is a gap that has existed a long period of time."

The achievement gap also surfaces at Howard's highest performing schools. For instance, at Centennial High School, black students scored in the 42nd percentile of test-takers in biology, while Asian students scored in the 91st percentile and whites scored in the 80th percentile.

River Hill High School's black students compiled scores that generally were twice as good as results for black students statewide and slightly better than River Hill's Hispanic students. Yet black students at River Hill were behind their Asian and white peers in every subject tested.

School officials puzzle over why the gap would surface at schools where most students come from middle-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds.

"It's a big concern," said Kimberly Statham, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "Are [minority] students exposed to high-level courses? Are they recruited? We've got to do some more talent spotting."

River Hill Principal Scott Pfeifer said turning around poor performance among middle and high schoolers is daunting.

"They have skill deficiencies we've allowed to exist from a very young age," he said.

Strategies for closing the gap, he added, can't be borrowed from somewhere else and followed like a recipe.

"Usually context is everything," Pfeifer said. "You take a good design, modify it, adapt it and tailor it and make it work for us. We've known that for 30 years, and we're still struggling with that."

Patricia S. Gordon, the Howard school board's lone African American member, said she was optimistic that elementary school minority students soon would show improvement under the superintendent's plan. But meeting the goals for high school achievement may not happen by 2007.

"It does take time," she said.