The percentage of Maryland high school students passing statewide exams increased this year -- but five years before the tests will be required for graduation, large numbers continue to fail.

More than half the students who took each test -- in algebra, English, government and biology -- passed it, according to results released yesterday. Last year, only 39.8 percent passed the English test.

More than 60 percent of students passed the biology and government exams this year, up slightly from last year.

Each Washington area school district posted gains in every area, some of them dramatic. Anne Arundel County students made double-digit improvements on three exams. In Prince George's County, 39 percent of students passed the English exam, up nearly 16 percentage points from the year before.

State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick called the results evidence that school systems have improved instruction and that students have become more aware that their performance will determine whether they earn a diploma. About 300,000 students took the tests in the spring.

Last year, after students posted disappointing scores, state school officials decided to wait an extra two years to require the tests for graduation. This year's eighth-graders, the Class of 2009, will be the first to face the exams as a graduation requirement, instead of current 10th-graders.

Some local officials questioned whether five years is enough time to prepare their students, particularly minority students, those who speak limited English and those in special education. In Prince George's, for example, African American students showed a gain of nearly 16 percentage points on the English exam, but even so, just 35.7 percent of them passed.

In Charles County, African American students' scores increased 7 to 12 percentage points in all four subjects, but the scores remained more than 20 percentage points behind those of white students in every category.

"I think it's going to be a very, very difficult standard to meet for all students," said Charles County Superintendent James E. Richmond. "Everybody's not going to meet the same standard. . . . We're all individuals. Some kids are good at testing, and some aren't. We need to never lose sight of the fact that we still need to treat kids as individuals, not as statistics, not as data to be manipulated."

State officials said they believe that scores will continue to improve each year, as students and teachers begin to take the test more seriously.

Even without the test counting toward graduation, state officials said, the progress has been significant. The High School Assessment exams -- or the HSAs, for short -- will replace a battery of tests considered a less-rigorous graduation requirement, the Maryland Functional Tests in reading, writing and math.

"We really believe we're far ahead of where we were at this time in comparison with the implementation of the functional tests," said Ron Peiffer, deputy state superintendent.

Maryland officials have decided to offer alternative routes to a diploma starting in 2009. If the sum of a student's scores on all HSA tests reaches a particular number that officials will determine this fall, the student will be able to graduate, said Gary Heath, assistant state superintendent for assessment and accountability.

Under that option, the student also will have to reach a minimum score on each test, which has not yet been determined, he said.

Students take the exams after completing a course, such as biology or algebra. Once the tests become a graduation requirement, a student who fails will have three more chances during the year to retake one or more of the exams.

In Virginia, high school students have to pass six high school Standards of Learning exams or approved substitutes to receive a diploma. Fewer than 100 Northern Virginia seniors failed to graduate in June because of the test results. In the District's public schools, graduation requirements are not tied to standardized test scores.

Throughout Maryland, local school officials celebrated the higher scores.

"This is good news for us," Anne Arundel Superintendent Eric J. Smith said in a statement. "However, we know that we must continue to focus on encouraging participation in rigorous coursework . . . in order to prepare all students for college and the workforce."

But the excitement was tempered by the inability to eliminate the minority achievement gap.

In Montgomery County, minority students made their biggest gains this year on the English test. The test was passed by 42.2 percent of African American students, up from 28.2 percent in 2003; 43.8 percent of Hispanic students, up from 31.6 percent; and 20 percent of students receiving English-language instruction, up from 8.1 percent.

Still, on almost every test, more than 80 percent of their white and Asian American peers passed.

"These groups are going to be highly impacted when this becomes a graduation requirement," said Terry Alban, director of the Montgomery school system's Department of Shared Accountability. "We feel we have a lot of cause for celebration right now. But there are still gap issues that we will face and try to move forward with."

Overall, low-poverty school systems outperformed those with higher concentrations of poor students, a phenomenon that is noticeable on other state and national tests.

In Howard County, for example, at least 70 percent of students passed each exam; in Prince George's, students did best on the government test, with 48.8 percent passing.

Staff writers Rebecca Dana, Joshua Partlow and Susan DeFord contributed to this report.

Charles County Superintendent James E. Richmond expressed concern about state requirements.