At least two-thirds of Maryland public school students in grades 4, 6 and 7 passed the state's reading test this year, and at least half passed the math test, under new standards set yesterday by the state Board of Education.

State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick characterized those results as average and cautioned that many special education students and children who speak limited English performed far below the standards. More than half of those students failed each of the exams.

The state reading and math tests, known as the Maryland School Assessments, were given for the first time this year to students in fourth, sixth and seventh grades. The exams, given in the spring, are aimed at measuring what students should have learned during the school year.

Yesterday, the state Board of Education established the passing scores for those grades. Test results were scaled from zero to 800 and ranked as basic, proficient or advanced. Students must have at least a proficient score to pass, and that varies for each grade level and each test. For example, a fourth-grade student must earn 374 points to be considered proficient on the math test but 371 to pass the reading exam.

State officials said that parents will receive their children's individual scores in the fall. The results released yesterday did not include a county-by-county breakdown.

Overall, about 75 percent of Maryland fourth-graders passed the reading test, while the passing rate for sixth- and seventh-graders was in the 60th percentile. Fourth-graders posted the highest passing rate on the math test as well, nearly 70 percent. About half of sixth- and seventh-graders passed that exam.

But several groups of students did not do nearly as well. About 85 percent of special education students who took the sixth-grade math test failed it. On the reading test, just over 80 percent of seventh-graders who speak limited English failed. More than half of low-income students also failed the reading test.

Still, Grasmick said that she remains optimistic about meeting the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Under the law, states must monitor the performance of minority students, as well as those who are poor, in special education programs or speak English as a second language. The percentage of students passing the state tests in each "subgroup," as they are called, must increase each year or schools could face state sanctions -- including the possibility of the state taking over control of a failing school.

The scores of Maryland students in grades 4, 6 and 7 will not count toward a school's performance until next year. This year, the state's public schools were judged only on results from grades 3, 5, 8 and 10, because those students took the math and reading tests last year as well. Their scores were released last month.The consequences of No Child Left Behind have presented a quandary across the country for officials charged with determining the passing scores on state achievement tests: Make the requirements too rigorous, and risk having a large number of students perform poorly; ease the requirements, and face accusations of "dummy-ing down" the test, in the words of Maryland school board member Dunbar Brooks.

Grasmick said she was confident in the method used to set the passing scores, which the state board approved in a unanimous vote. "People can feel a level of credibility [because] real practitioners did the heavy lifting," Grasmick said.