Montgomery County school system officials are trying to devise ways to improve test scores of special education students after state test results showed that nearly every school that failed did so only because of special education students.

The testing requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act are designed so that even if a school's population does well overall, problems in smaller groups won't be masked.

The state reports not just whether a sufficient share of students at a school passed the Maryland State Assessment (MSA), an annual reading and math test, but also breaks down the students into subgroups -- such as race or special services received. Those special services are divided further into such categories as special education and English as a second language. If a sufficient number of students in any one group fails, the whole school doesn't pass.

On the tests given in February and March of this year, five Montgomery County elementary schools missed the target only in special education math. One elementary school, seven middle schools and one high school missed just in special education reading. One middle school missed in both. (Mark Twain School for emotionally disturbed students and the county's alternative programs, considered as an entity, didn't meet the reading target for any group of students.)

The number of county schools that failed the test fell from 44 last year to 17 this year. Last year, most of the schools that missed did so not for special education students but for students with limited English skills.

Statewide, special education was a sticking point on this year's test. At 124 of the 150 Maryland schools that did not hit their performance targets, special education students did not pass. At 79 of those schools, the only group that missed was special education students.

Last year, when a much larger number of schools failed -- 523 -- 117 missed only because of special education. Many schools missed that year because of scores by students who speak English as a second language.

Ron Peiffer, an assistant state schools superintendent, said the steep fall in the number of schools whose limited-English students failed the test probably came from a change in the state rules: In 2003, students were counted as having limited proficiency in English only if they were receiving language services at the time. In 2004, the state decided, schools could count children as limited-English proficient up to two years after they stopped receiving those services -- broadening the pool of students to include better English speakers.

Pat Kelly, Montgomery County's acting director of special education, said that one reason many special education students did poorly on the test was their lack of access to the general curriculum. The county is moving to include more special education students in regular classrooms as mandated by the federal and state governments. About half the schools that failed the test, Kelly said, mostly teach special education students separately and half include them in regular classrooms.

"If we have schools where students are still contained in self-contained classrooms, they're not even aware of what's going on in the general classroom," she said.

Gwendolyn Mason, director of the county's division of school-based special education services, has started to work with schools to figure out how best to attack the issue. She said the primary question is: "What students and what targeted population in that school may have impacted the performance?"

Schools vary in their setups, but usually, Mason said, students in special education classrooms learn reading and math from special education teachers rather than from reading and math teachers -- a practice out of line with the new nationwide push for subjects to be taught by content specialists.

Mason said that all county special education teachers receive curriculum training and that all teachers in kindergarten through fifth grade and some middle school and high school teachers -- in general and special education -- received training this summer to deliver instruction better to disabled students.

Kelly said that until this summer, special education teachers weren't automatically included in curriculum training, and they haven't always been at the table when general education teachers sat down to plan. In addition, she said, general teachers don't get a great deal of training in how to teach special education students in their classrooms.

"We have a tradition where general-ed teachers saw special education students as special education teachers' responsibility," Kelly said. "The past year we started working on that collaboration. The general teachers have had curriculum under their belt, while we've had strategies that work. You need both."

Failing the MSA a number of years in a row brings federally mandated sanctions, particularly for high-poverty schools: After two years, students are allowed to transfer out. After three years, schools must pay to give students private after-school tutoring. Further down the line, schools can face total staff changes and takeover by the state or private companies.

By 2014, the federal government says, every student in the country should score "proficient" on state exams.

Bob Astrove, a Rockville software engineer and advocate for parents of special education students, thinks the expectation is reasonable given that most special education students are not severely disabled, but he said there must be a serious improvement in instruction. "The kids in special education did terribly once again," he said. "They're so far from achieving proficiency, it's going to take years."

Mason said the school system is on its way, starting with new skills teachers learned this summer.

"I would think parents of children with disabilities might see teachers really using strategies to give students with disabilities access to the general curriculum," she said.