Nineteen schools in Montgomery County did not meet state criteria for progress on the Maryland School Assessment, a standardized test students took four months ago.

The targets are set in accordance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to judge performance on annual reading and math tests -- not just collectively but for students in various groups, including racial and ethnic minorities, low-income children, those in special education and those who speak limited English. If a school's students in any one group miss the target, the school does, too.

In nearly every case, county schools that missed the cut did so with only one group: special education students.

"For whatever reasons, the special-ed category is proving to be the most difficult," said school system spokesman Brian Porter. However, he said, because the vast majority of schools met their targets, "we know that we're within striking distance" of having all of schools make the grade.

The share of students scoring proficient on the reading and math tests increased this year for all groups of students statewide and most groups countywide. But No Child Left Behind requires that the threshold needed to pass -- as defined by the state -- increase each year. Fourteen percent of Maryland public schools missed the target this year. In 2003, 37 percent missed.

Three county elementary schools -- Broad Acres, Burnt Mills and Summit Hall -- met the targets for the second year in a row after scoring low previously, so they have been removed from the state list of schools needing improvement and subject to sanctions. "That's a tremendous accomplishment" for student populations so immersed in poverty, Porter said.

Nine county schools missed the target for the first time. For another nine, it was the second year in a row they missed, placing them on the state list.

One county school -- Highland Elementary in Silver Spring -- failed to make sufficient progress for the fourth year in a row. Students met the targets in every category they failed to last year (for poor, Hispanic and limited-English students), but missed in special-ed math. The school now enters what the federal law calls "corrective action."

There is work ahead, said Highland Assistant Principal Rebecca Jones, but, she added, "we were quite happy with our improvement. We try to look at it positively."

Highland will introduce a new reading curriculum, and school system officials will consider whether other measures need to be taken.

At high-poverty schools that miss the target twice in a row, students may transfer to better-scoring schools. Any school that misses three years in a row must pay for private tutoring for low-income students. After six years, low-scoring schools may be taken over by the state or a private company.

At least one change may have made it easier for some schools to meet performance targets, state officials said. The federal government used to remove students from the limited-English designation as soon as they achieved proficiency in English. But that meant that as a group, the remaining limited-English students had a slim chance of showing they improved. So now school systems are allowed to consider children as limited-English, for purposes of calculating test results, two years after they are fluent in English.

The test results are based on the third-, fifth-, eighth- and 10th-graders who took the Maryland School Assessments. Students in grades four, six and seven took the tests for the first time this year; their scores do not yet count.

Six county elementary schools on the state's need-improvement list met the targets for the first time and will be removed from the list if they do so again next year. They are Gaithersburg, Harmony Hills, Kemp Mill, Rosemont, Weller Road and Wheaton Woods.

Added to the list because they missed the targets this year and last year were the county's alternative programs (considered collectively) and nine schools: Clopper Mill and Piney Branch elementary schools; Montgomery Village, Silver Spring International, Eastern and Parkland middle schools; Col. Zadok Magruder and John F. Kennedy high schools; and Mark Twain School for students with emotional and behavioral problems.

At all of those schools except Magruder, at least one-quarter of the students live in poverty.

Nine schools were placed "on alert" because they missed targets for the first time: S. Christa McAuliffe, Stedwick and Woodlin elementary schools; Roberto Clemente, Benjamin Banneker, Col. E. Brooke Lee, Newport Mill and Shady Grove middle schools; and Sherwood High School.