Howard County students did well on new state tests for reading and math, but longstanding achievement gaps persist and improvement was missing among some groups.

Howard students bested statewide averages in reading and math tests given this spring in third, fifth and eighth grades, according to preliminary results released Tuesday. Howard 10th-graders also did better than the state average on a reading exam, administered as part of the Maryland School Assessments.

"It's good news," said interim Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin. "The great majority of schools are performing up to the level we anticipated."

Students in grades 3 through 8, along with 10th-graders, took the Maryland School Assessments as part of the state's effort to comply with federal education reform, known as the No Child Left Behind Act.

Test results for fourth-, sixth- and seventh-graders will not be available until later this summer. Last year, Howard posted the top scores in the state, with 82 percent of students rated proficient or advanced in reading and 72.5 percent proficient or advanced in math.

The results released this week showed especially strong scores in reading, said Kimberly Statham, chief academic officer. The percentage of Howard students showing advanced or proficient reading levels in grades 3, 5, 8 and 10 ranged from 82.2 to 88 percent, while state averages for those same grades ranged from 63.8 to 71 percent.

Howard's math scores, like the state's, dropped in the higher grades. Eighty-seven percent of Howard third-graders scored at proficient or advanced levels in math, compared with 83.2 percent of fifth-graders and 62.2 percent of eighth-graders. By comparison, statewide figures showed 72.2 percent of third graders scoring at proficient or advanced levels in math, compared with 63.1 percent of fifth-graders and 45.8 percent of eighth-graders.

"We have put resources into reading to a greater degree than we have with math," said Cousin. "We have to look more carefully at how we're delivering our math instruction."

The superintendent pointed out that struggling schools selected by the county for special assistance have shown "pretty remarkable improvement." In fact, all seven elementary schools identified for assistance reached the county's goal of having 70 percent of students show proficiency in reading and math.

"It's a first," said Leslie Wilson, director of student assessment and program evaluation.

School officials also said the results show progress in what Statham referred to as "the knotty area of subgroups."

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires student performance to be analyzed by race, disability, poverty level and English speaking skills. The federal law mandates that students in each of those categories be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Each year, schools must meet gradually increasing targets for the number of students who pass the state tests. If any student group fails to meet that target, the entire school fails, exposing it to eventual takeover by the state.

At the elementary level, "we're very pleased to see that every subgroup had made progress," said Wilson. For example, black third-graders in Howard improved from 59.6 percent proficiency in mathematics last year to 73.1 percent this year. In reading, Howard's fifth-grade special education students went from 48.5 percent showing proficient or advanced skills last year to 56.9 percent this year.

But the scores also reflected the persistent achievement gap among ethnic groups, with African American and Hispanic students trailing their white and Asian peers in reading and math at every grade level.

In addition, there were drops among some subgroups in the higher grades. For example, eighth-graders with limited English experienced declining scores in math: 51.7 showed proficiency last year compared with 32.9 percent this year. Eighth-graders who qualified for free and reduced-cost meals declined in reading: 52.2 percent showed proficiency last year compared with 46.3 percent this year.

Wilson said it takes longer to see progress among students who arrive in middle school lacking solid skills. School officials are awaiting test data for fourth-, sixth- and seventh-graders, due in August, to determine whether proficiency drops off in middle school and whether students lag in specific areas of math or reading.

"We really need a lot more information to make a plan as to how we will address this," she said.

If a school fails to meet state performance targets two years in a row, it may be required to allow students to transfer to a better-performing school. If it continues to do poorly, even among one subgroup, the school could eventually face state takeover.

Maryland education officials said that they will not be able to determine which schools failed to meet this year's performance targets until later this summer because they are waiting for federal guidance about what constitutes adequate progress for Maryland schools.

Howard officials said they were confident about meeting state performance goals because the county's three-year-old Comprehensive Plan for Accelerated School Improvement has set ambitious goals, much higher than the state's.

But Statham added, "We need to keep the momentum going."