The achievement gap that splits Asians and whites from blacks and Hispanics in many Anne Arundel County classrooms is closing, according to the most recent results of a statewide exam that measures students' progress in reading and math.

Blacks and Hispanics scored higher on the exam this year compared with last, in some cases by dramatic increases, according to the exam results, which were released Tuesday.

"Overall, I'm very pleased with the system results for this year's MSA," Smith said earlier this week in releasing the test scores for the Maryland School Assessments. "Our total student population has shown real gains this past year in both reading and math."

As a whole, those 75,000 students in Anne Arundel public schools who took the exam improved in most categories as well.

"These are very meaningful results," said Anne Arundel Schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith. He said it was a solid foundation for continued improvement.

Still, more work needs to be done, he said.

Despite the gains, whites and Asians continue to score higher than their black and Hispanic counterparts. In the eighth grade, for example, 75.6 percent of Asians and 73.6 percent of whites scored in the "advanced" or "proficient" range on this year's reading test, while just 49.9 percent of blacks and 55.1 percent of Hispanics reached that level.

The county's results mirror those statewide, which also show an overall improvement in reading and math and a narrowing of the whites and Asians/blacks and Hispanics gap.

The MSA, which was given to schoolchildren statewide in the spring for just the second time, has become a key focus for state educators under pressure to improve student achievement. Under the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act, all students must be proficient in reading and math by 2014 or face various consequences.

The MSA replaced the controversial Maryland School Performance and Assessment Program, or MSPAP, which for years was used by the state to gauge how well schools were teaching and to determine which schools should be targeted for intervention or possible takeover. In 2002, the Maryland Department of Education replaced the MSPAP with the MSA to satisfy requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act and to give schools and parents a better idea of how individual students are progressing.

In Anne Arundel, the academic disparity between ethnic groups helped spur the hiring of Smith, who is credited with improving the test scores of minority students in North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district. Since taking over in Anne Arundel, the fifth-largest school system in the state and the 41st largest in the country, he has begun to overhaul the system. With the most recent batch of test scores showing sometimes dramatic improvement, the changes are working, Smith said.

"Over the last two years we've spent a lot of time talking about programmatic issues that have brought to the classroom the appropriate tools that teachers need to be successful," said Smith.

Specifically, he said educators have "completely rewritten our reading and math curriculum; we purchased new textbooks and created guides for our teachers to help them have better clarity about what needs to be taught."

The tests are ranked "advanced, "proficient" or "basic," with at least a proficient rank needed to pass. More than 71 percent of Hispanic third-graders scored either "advanced" or "proficient" on the reading test, up 18.4 percent over last year. More than 61 percent of black third-graders reached that category, a 16.1 percent increase. Of all third-graders, nearly 80 percent passed, a nearly 15 percent increase over last year on the reading test.

There were also double-digit increases in math for black and Hispanic fifth-graders. More than 58 percent of blacks passed, a 17.4 increase. For Hispanics, the number rose 21.7 percent, to 71.7 percent.

There were more modest gains in some of the higher grades and even some decreases.

Just 55.1 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders were "advanced" or "proficient" in reading, a 1.4 percent decrease. Eighth-graders improved 2.9 percent overall in the category, to 68.1 percent.

Special education students and students enrolled in the English as a Second Language program also showed improvements. About 38 percent of ESL students in eighth grade passed the math test, up 20.7 percent. Although just 15 percent of eighth-grade special education students passed the test, it represented an 8.5 percent increase.

"What I see is movement in the right direction," Smith said. "This is just the beginning of the story. It's not the end. We have lots of work ahead of us. And we are investing in improvement for next year already."