Statewide scores on Maryland's reading and math achievement tests improved from a year ago, state officials said yesterday, and the performance gap between white and minority students showed signs of narrowing.

Some of the most significant gains were made on the third-grade reading test, as 71 percent of the state's public school students passed that exam, compared with 58 percent in 2003. In the Washington area, a few counties posted even larger increases: The passing rate for Charles County's third-graders went up 14 percentage points, for example, while in Prince George's County, third-graders had a spike of 15.9 percentage points in the reading passing rate over last year.

"I have focused on reading since the day I walked in," said Prince George's schools chief Andre J. Hornsby. "My attitude with principals was simple: No improvement is unacceptable."

The scores released yesterday reflect the performance of students in third, fifth and eighth grades who took the reading and math tests, along with 10th-graders who took the reading test. This is the second year that students in those grades have taken the exams, known as the Maryland School Assessments. Scores are ranked as basic, proficient and advanced, and students must rate at least proficient to pass each test.

Students in grades 4, 6 and 8 took the exams for the first time this year. Their results will not be available until the end of summer because state officials have yet to set passing scores for them. Tenth-grade math scores will not be released until late summer as well.

State officials also said they could not yet determine what percentage of students in each county passed the tests because they are waiting for federal approval of a formula used to calculate proficiency, the threshold required under the No Child Left Behind law.

Still, Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick termed the preliminary results "stunning" for some of the levels of improvement.

Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry D. Weast noted that among third-graders in the 15 elementary schools with the highest levels of poverty in the county and large minority populations, the percentage of students who passed the reading and math tests improved at a rate double the county's overall. Weast has implemented several reforms at those schools, including smaller class sizes and teacher training.

"I'm tickled," Weast said. "That's gap-closing. . . . We now know we have a system that will work."

Across the state, scores improved for black and Hispanic students from a year ago, as well as for students who speak limited English. On the third-grade reading exam, for example, results for Hispanic students went up more than 20 percentage points, for a passing rate of almost 60 percent. Scores for white students increased about 9 percentage points.

Black students saw their scores improve substantially on the third- and fifth-grade math tests, with an increase of at least 10 percentage points on each -- compared with an increase of 4 or 5 percentage points for white students.

The passing rate for students who speak limited English jumped by 27 percentage points statewide in third-grade reading.

Grasmick credited the gains to the $320 million that public schools received in increased state funding and to a voluntary state curriculum introduced last year.

Still, some school systems experienced slight declines. Scores for special education students in eighth grade in Montgomery, for example, dropped several percentage points in reading and math. In Anne Arundel County, the passing performance by eighth-grade Hispanic students dipped by 1.4 percentage points on the reading exam.

School systems will use the results of the state tests this summer to determine which schools are on the right track and which schools are "in need of improvement" under No Child Left Behind. The federal law requires that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Maryland has set increasing annual targets for student performance to meet that goal.

The law also requires schools to judge student performance by race and income, along with enrollment in special education and ability to speak English. Each of those groups must hit the yearly targets, and if any group fails, the entire school fails.

Grasmick cautioned that the rosy picture could fade next year as students and schools face increasingly high targets for performance. This year, the target inched up slightly from last year, she said. Next year, the target jumps as much as 10 percentage points in each subject.

"We are going to be challenged to perform with as much success as we have this year," Grasmick said.

Staff writers Linda Perlstein, Nancy Trejos, Christian Davenport and Joshua Partlow contributed to this report.